The softer skills of handling clients and coping with complex administration are indifferently taught. A former Linklaters partner offers a refresher course.
The following grew out of various informal talks I used to give to the many articled clerks and trainee solicitors with whom I had the privilege of sharing an office over the years. Solicitors are good at teaching hard law, but the softer skills of handling clients and coping with the increasingly complex administration which the law requires are less well taught.
These skills are usually best learned on the job, but some general guidance can often be helpful.
Meetings are a necessary part of practising law. They can sometimes be extremely helpful in moving a matter along; sometimes they can be a complete waste of time. But they can at least provide a much-needed break from the piles of paper mounting up on the desk.
Before going into a meeting do you think about where to sit? Where will you put the clients in relation to you? If it is a meeting with representatives of another firm, how friendly or confrontational do you want to be? All these factors affect the seating plan. Think of it as arranging the seating at a dinner party where you only like half the guests. Personally, I like to sit with a window behind me, especially in negotiations, so that if the sun comes out, people looking at me, even if not blinded by my intellect, will at least be blinded by the light.
Think about how the meeting is likely to play out. Does it need a chairman? If so, who will it be? What will be the first thing you need to say in the meeting? Have your opening words thought out. What questions might you be asked? How will you answer them? What further questions might your answers prompt? What questions do you need to ask? Make sure you have read all the necessary papers before the meeting and have either a hard copy agenda before you or a soft copy in your head.
If you do not understand what someone is telling you in a meeting, keep asking questions until you do understand. There is nothing worse than coming away from a meeting and not understanding clearly what you have been asked to do or what all the relevant facts are.
Bear in mind too that clients sometimes ask you the wrong questions. Part of your role as a good solicitor is to identify the questions the client should be asking and to answer them.
Always do a note of the meetings. Think about the purpose of the note. Is it meant to be a verbatim transcript of what was said and by whom, or is it a record of the legal advice given and/or a summary of the action points agreed? Think about who the note is for. Is it just for your file or is it for wider circulation? Unless it is important to record in the note the precise order of events, I tend to allow a fair amount of flexibility when ordering my material, if it helps the presentation of that material and a better understanding of the advice given.
When preparing a note of a conference (junior) or consultation (silk) with counsel, it is sensible to draw it up with the original instructions firmly in mind but to make the note as freestanding as possible, so a reader does not have to keep referring back to those instructions to understand the advice given.
Beware the informality of email. Always make sure you express yourself clearly, accurately and without ambiguity, as if you were writing a formal letter of advice. It is all too easy to fire off an email without thinking enough about the content. So, with important emails of advice, it is sensible to type the email, print off a draft and read through a hard copy before you send it. And beware also the ‘reply to all’ button.
Always use correct spelling and grammar: remember the correct use of ‘Yours faithfully’ and ‘Yours sincerely’; the difference between it’s (it is) and its (the possessive of it); and that ‘however’ is not a conjunction like ‘and’ and ‘but’ (it is, strictly speaking, an adverb). ‘I would like to write longer, but I haven’t the time’ is fine. ‘I would like to write longer, however I haven’t the time’ reads like a tabloid sports page (so I am told).
Do not always assume that spellcheck is 100% reliable. I remember spellcheck once converting ‘a distribution of chattels from a Bahamian trust’ into ‘a distribution of cattle from a Bohemian trust’. It can also play havoc with people’s names, sometimes to the point of defamation.
Try to use concrete rather than abstract language in your emails and letters. Practical examples can often be helpful, as can illustrative figures. In areas such as tax, the client can often be helped to reach the right decision if you provide the actual figures for the amounts of tax payable in various situations.
Avoid letters or emails sent in anger or frustration. It is much better to sit on a draft for 24 hours and read it again before sending it, rather than to make what may turn out to be a huge error of judgement.
And generally when drafting, work on the assumption that the entire contents of your letter or email will one day be read out in open court. Hold on to that thought because it will help to regulate the tone and content of your communications. If you really do have to shout at someone, do it over the phone.
When sending an attachment to an email, check you have the right one by opening before you press ‘send’. Also, always include your phone number (and other contact details) at the end of the email, so the recipient can phone you back without having to root around for your phone number.
Acknowledge all emails and letters you receive where you cannot reply immediately, but try and avoid committing yourself to a reply at a specific time if possible. The speed of the email has completely changed the nature of a solicitor’s practice, and not necessarily for the better. Previously, when most correspondence was done by letter, you could send a letter of advice and relax, knowing that you would not get a reply for at least a week, and get on with something else.
Now, you send an email of advice and 20 minutes later you receive a detailed reply with lots of questions. You just can never get rid of the wretched matter and get on with the next task.
There is also a tendency, which needs to be fought against, of constantly checking one’s inbox. Something new comes in and you decide you need to answer it immediately (sometimes simply because you can), so you stop what you are doing, answer and then get back to your original task.
But the damage is done. Your train of thought has been broken and it takes you longer to get back into the frame of mind you were in before. It can be a very good discipline to check your inbox only at certain times of the day. Of course, with permanent access to the internet in one’s pocket, wherever you are, whatever time it is, you can end up never getting a break.
A lot of a solicitor’s work is done over the phone. I think it is essential to keep a note, however sketchy, of all one’s calls, with the day, month and year of the call. Do not simply trust to memory. You may think your memory has 1TB capacity, but all hard drives eventually fill up – or let you down. I used to keep a commonplace book in which I recorded all (well, many) of my phone calls. Sometimes the note ended up on the file, often it did not.
But it might be a real godsend to be able to turn up the note, say, six months later. My commonplace book rescued me from a number of potentially tricky situations. The alternative is to send yourself a short email about the conversation and to file it along with the other emails on the file.
Try and plan ahead. A solicitor’s practice is 20% law and 80% paper pushing, so you need to be very organised. I relied on lists and daily agendas. A partner with whom I used to work also taught me the useful device of adding a sentence
at end of letter or email, setting out the next steps once I received a reply, to remind me what I needed to do next.
If you know you are running late with something, try to avoid letting the client chase you by getting in first with an update and revising the delivery date. OK, I know this rarely happens, but I mention it just in case.
Generally, do not allow matters to become dormant. Keep following up and diarise chasers. And do not be like our US colleagues and leave everything until the last minute and then work seven 24-hour days up to completion. This is probably why the corridor inhabited by the US lawyers in the offices of one London law firm is known as Hysteria Lane.
Some useful advice I was once given is never to scribble on the clean copy of a document you have been sent. Make a second copy and scribble on that. But always keep a pristine version.
Today, the more sophisticated clients, and in-house heads of legal services, are aware that if they give instructions to their lawyers at the last minute they can limit the amount of their charges (where you are on a time basis). Be aware of this and try and plan in advance if you can.
Finally, there is a lot of merit in keeping a second commonplace book in which you record interesting or important points of law you discover and think will come in useful one day. I found I was always learning something new. Even after 30 years’ practice I came across things I was blissfully unaware of. As legislation became more complex and prolix, I also found the book a useful place to record acts of parliament and sections numbers I needed to remember.
So, over to you. I expect you knew much of this already. Most of it is, after all, just common sense. But sometimes it useful to have a refresher. I hope so anyway.
Nigel Reid was head of the trust department at Linklaters from 1987-2011.