Welcome to our new ‘What I know now’ series on the Florit Brooke NQ blog. Each month, we’ll be sitting down with a qualified legal professional to talk about their career journey: what set them on the path to becoming a solicitor, and the steps they took to achieving that goal, as well as exploring their personal experience of working in the legal sector (ups, downs, and everything in between).
Every solicitor’s career trajectory is individual to them: each of the legal professionals we’ve spoken to has taken a different route through training, qualification and specialisation. Through these conversations, we hope to show you the breadth of options out there for trainee solicitors and NQs, as well as emphasising that there’s no single ‘right way’ to fulfil your career goals.
First up in the ‘Ask a solicitor’ series is Yorkshire employment law specialist Paul Menham. After training in Bradford with Read Dunn Connell and qualifying as a solicitor in 2002, Paul moved on to his first NQ role at Denison Till in York. Fast-forward to 2018, and he’s a partner at commercial specialists gunnercooke LLP, with a focus on the education sector and significant experience in defending discrimination claims. He’s also a keen runner (as evidenced in the picture above!), with a couple of marathons in aid of Lupus UK already under his belt and plans for running another one this year.
Read on to learn more about Paul’s brief fling with accountancy, his love of Oasis, and what he’d like to change about the legal sector…
Hi, Paul. Why did you decide to train as a solicitor?
I have always been good at maths. I therefore wanted to pursue a career as an accountant, but my friend’s dad (who was an accountant) told me “Don’t be an accountant, solicitors make all the money.” So, as an idealistic (and not at all materialistic) young man, I changed tack. He now works one day per week and ‘makes music’ during the other four days a week, whilst I’m sat at my desk at 7.00pm!
How well did your experience as a trainee prepare you for becoming qualified?
It was invaluable. I worked in a high street firm, and got the opportunity to work in various different areas, which gave me a really good grounding in different areas of the law. I also gained lots of skills – including considerable advocacy, drafting and lots of client contact – which stood me in good stead after I qualified.
Describe your training partner in 3 words.
Knowledgeable, client-focused, results-driven.
What was the biggest difference for you when you were admitted and took a full solicitor role?
The responsibility for a monthly financial target. As a trainee, the focus was mainly on learning. As a solicitor, whilst targets were realistic, I was ultimately responsible for my own target. That is a big change.
Also, the perception of the outside world on qualification is that you are a solicitor, therefore you must know the answer to any legal issue (Hint: You won’t).
What were the factors behind you choosing the area of law that you specialise in?
Employment law was the area I enjoyed the most as a trainee, by far – something about the clients, tribunals and the fact that it was an area that was completely understandable (everyone knows a bit about the employment relationship, as most people have been employed!). It also helped that employment law often involves common sense and treating people well – which seemed significantly less complicated than other areas of the law.
Compared to your own experience, how similar or different do you perceive the challenges facing NQs to be in 2018?
I would anticipate that there are fewer roles and more qualifying NQs than when I qualified. I would also anticipate that it is probably harder to change areas of specialism after qualification. From working with incredibly talented trainees and NQs in my previous role, I would anticipate that this year’s NQs will take qualification (and its challenges) in their stride.
What piece of practical advice would you give to someone who is at the start of their legal career?
Listen and learn, every day. In almost 20 years as a solicitor, there are very few days when I’ve not learned something new. Every experience as a lawyer gives you the opportunity to learn and to improve. None of us ever stops learning.
With hindsight, what do you wish you has known when you were NQ?
How much I should have put into my pension (whatever you are saving probably isn’t enough!).
If you were to recruit a lawyer at NQ level to work closely with you, what would be the most important thing you’d look for?
How they get on with people. You can teach anyone the law. You can teach people techniques and skills. It is much harder to teach someone how to interact with colleagues and clients.
What is the strangest experience you’ve had in an interview, and how did you handle it?
I was once approached for a job and instantly said “no thanks” and gave various reasons why I wasn’t interested. I later realised that I’d been hasty and then spent most of an interview having to backtrack and explain why I’d previously said no. I’m pleased to say that I did ultimately get the job.
What is your best interview tip?
In the words of Oasis: ‘You need to be yourself. You can’t be no-one else’. (You should be grateful I didn’t sing that!) Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not; try to let your own personality shine through.These are people that you are going to be working with every day (possibly for long hours) – they need to know the real you, and if that isn’t right for that organisation, then it isn’t right.
To date, what is your ‘career highlight’?
It tends to be victories in tribunal that stick in the mind – incredible highs when you win (and lows when you don’t). So, I’d probably say successfully defending a discrimination claim brought by an X Factor contestant in a five-day hearing, or defending a claim by a determined IT technician through an 18-day tribunal, the employment appeal tribunal and the court of appeal. Or possibly a costs award of over £10,000 against a trade union (who had unsuccessfully claimed over £400,000 against my client).
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you at work?
There have been a lot. I’m fortunate enough that (unlike some former colleagues) I’ve not turned up at the wrong court. However, I have been sent to the wrong place in a prison and had to hightail out of the prisoners’ lunch hall (this seems funnier in hindsight than it did at the time). I also once bamboozled a former firm’s whole IT department by swapping a colleague’s mouse buttons around. We laughed… others may not have done!
What would you change about the legal profession?
One of the things that irritates me about some solicitors is the manner in which they address other solicitors and clients. I believe that there is no excuse for rudeness or talking down to anyone. I’m not sure how I would change it, but it is a bugbear, and some of the worst offenders give the profession a bad name.
I’d also ban TV and radio advertising – it makes me cringe every time I hear “have you had an accident or injury in the last three years…”
Besides being a lawyer, if money were no object and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you most like to try or do?
If Oasis were re-forming, I would quite like to be the lead singer…
Summarise your experience of legal recruiters in 5 words or less.
Some are great, others… hmmmm!
Thanks for talking to us, Paul (and we hope we fall into the ‘great’ category of legal recruiters!)