Mediator and panellist, JAMS International
Having scraped through Queen’s University Belfast by the skin of my teeth, I had never intended law to be my long-term career. As I could not think of anything better to do as a teenager, my mother, with her background as a legal secretary, had pushed me in the direction of the law courts.
The hardest challenges I’ve faced are standing firm in continuing to trust my own judgment in the merits of a case, particularly if a client begins to lose his nerve as we approach the door of the court, and remaining calm during that long wait for the jury to reach a decision.
There is no doubt that I learned a great deal from my first five years of practice in the areas of personal injury and defence litigation, when juries were still a feature in Northern Ireland. I learned a great deal about the presentation and evidential objectives, which often differ significantly from running a case before a judge sitting alone, and this has been invaluable experience in my later years in contesting cases before juries in the libel courts.
As in every walk of life, there are different individuals with different character traits, but it does not take too long to understand and get to the bottom of your opponent. In the area of contentious litigation which has formed the basis of my practice over the years, unfortunately there has tended to be no grey area, in that you either enjoy an amicable working relationship, or you are at complete loggerheads with the lawyer on the other side.
My least favourite law is the new Defamation Act 2013, which is likely to deny access to justice to the ordinary man on the street, in circumstances where he was already facing a difficult financial hurdle, in the absence of legal aid.
In recent times, the difficult economic situation has created immense stress and has resulted in dramatic changes in the approach to work taken on by individual solicitors. What had often been a reasonably relaxed and contemplative approach within the profession has been replaced by necessity with a commercial drive and impatience to ensure prompt billing, which has become more and more the motivating factor. On the other hand the new economic reality has encouraged greater efficiency and commercial reality in the profession generally.
The Law Society and the academic institutions should take proactive steps to reduce the number of young people hoping to utilise a law degree to enter the profession when there simply is not sufficient work to accommodate them. The availability of legal positions is likely to reduce even further in the coming years, and so it is vital that potential law students are made aware of the position and their talent channelled in a direction where they will be working towards gainful employment.
I would have no hesitation in advising someone to pursue a legal career, provided they did so with their eyes open, in the knowledge that they need to specialise from an early stage and that they will be entering one of the most competitive commercial environments at this time. They should also develop their expertise in the knowledge that mediation and arbitration are likely to be a growing trend in the coming years.