Friday, 25 March 2011

Do lawyers really help people or do they just help themselves?

It's a big question and it's been asked by the SYLA and WS as the starting point for their writing competition.

While I don't plan on entering the competition, the question did get me thinking . . . .

Do lawyers really help people or do they just help themselves? To me the question suggests that while lawyers think they're helping people, or tell themselves they're helping people, in fact they might not be. Or maybe they know full well what they're doing and like to present to the public the face of respectability when they're really a bunch of mercenaries. A collection of sharp suited, quick talking, arrogant, over educated, overpaid profiteers hell bent on squeezing every last penny from the difficult situations which they are called on to resolve?

Wait a minute, surely they're not all like that? Isn't it a bit harsh to be grouping lawyers together like that? Would we find ourselves asking the same question of another profession? Lets apply the question to another group who have to train for many years to be allowed to practice and see how well it fits . . . .

Do Architects really help people or do they just help themselves? Surely they're not interested in helping people to live in the home of their dreams! All they want is the big fat cheque at the end of the job and the respect of their peers! It seems to me like the question simplifies things a little too much.

The motivation of different individuals for entering a profession can vary considerably, as such their eventual area of practice and method of doing business will vary. In answering the question with reference to lawyers, is it fair to draw comparisons between a newly qualified procurator fiscal (criminal prosecutor), working for the state, with an ideological stance about keeping criminals off the streets and helping society, with a media lawyer who has 25 years of experience in helping celebrities sue newspapers and newspapers to know where to draw the line when printing gossip?

Surely there are as many different types of lawyer as there are types of legal work and the choice of field may have some correlation with whether or not the lawyer is interested in helping other people or their own selfish ends. It's not too difficult to imagine a child, with a child's understanding of the world wanting to be a prosecutor, locking up the baddies, or being an employment lawyer, helping people to keep their job or be treated fairly an employer. What's a little harder to imagine (for me at least) is that same child wanting to be a tax law specialist, coming up with clever ways for large companies to decrease their tax liability.

There are many examples of lawyers whose careers demonstrate a desire to help people, I need look no further than Glasgow, my home town, where we have the Legal Services Agency and the Govan Law Centre. LSA provides free legal advice in a number of areas along with having a dedicated mental health team and refugee department. This is a law firm working with vulnerable groups day in day out, it's hard for me to see how lawyers in this environment could be accused of not really helping people and just being out for themselves.

How about the often demonised, ambulance chasing, personal injury lawyer? Surely they're just out to make a few quid from the suffering of their clients at the expense of the poor sod who caused the injury? Maybe so but I'm sure their clients aren't too bothered when they receive their compensation cheques!

Is it not the case that any successful relationship (business or otherwise) should be mutually beneficial? I certainly think so. While the lawyer may always have to focus on billable hours, ultimately billable hours means time spent working for the client, which translates to helping the client achieve their goal. Surely this comfortably creates, in most situations, a win win, whereby the lawyer helps herself by helping her client.

These are just my initial thoughts, feel free to comment,

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lets have a look at what you could've won . . . .

In a disappointing and painful event this week my partner and I were knocked out of our University's internal mooting competition. In an epic quarter final battle we fought valiantly and won our case on point of law but were however defeated in the moot. To the victor goes the spoils, in this case the opportunity to pass to the semi-final of the competition, competing at the sheriff court in Glasgow. The defeated team takes with them the bitter sting of failure, oblivion, pain and ultimately death, OK I'm over egging the pudding a little but I really hate loosing!

For anyone not familiar with mooting, a moot is a mock courtroom competition where the competitors are given opposing sides of an appeal case to fight before a judge. As the law may be on the side of one of the teams the outcome of the case isn't the deciding factor in who wins the competition, what matters is which team fought the better case. This is judged based on the quality of research, professionalism, presentation, understanding of the law and ability to respond well to judicial questioning. In essence some of the the complex skill set required of the competent QC or Advocate.

The appeal of mooting to a law student is easy to understand, it gives us the opportunity to have a go at being Perry MasonDenny Crane or Ally McBeal, standing up and arguing a case. That's what it's all about right? Maybe, it's certainly what made me want to give it a try, but what I've found is that there's so much more to it than that. The benefits of taking part in the competition go far beyond having a go at fighting a case and adding something to the CV.

My involvement has taught me about teamwork, and boosted my research skills. It's boosted my confidence in public speaking and court etiquette. For the first few moots I was very nervous, by the time I reached the quarter final however, I found my confidence had grown and I was much more relaxed in delivering my submissions and dealing with judicial scrutiny. By taking the competition seriously, I managed to reach the quarter final which meant lots of research. With the Quarter final place came a trip to the Supreme Court in London, where we were given the opportunity to sit in on two cases (watching senior advocates at work), and then meet and ask questions of Lord Hope. I've also met a great deal of highly motivated, intelligent hard working law students who I hope to count among my colleagues in the not too distant future.

While I was disappointed not to have made it to the semi final, the nature of the competition means that there can be only one winner, and 'my friends across the bar' certainly deserved to win on the day. Not only were they professional, articulate and knowledgeable, but I must concede that they had a little more flair than I as well as being more polished in their presentation. So while my partner and I could've won a semi-final place, based on the things I've learned and the people I've met, I genuinely feel like I'm a winner overall for having taken part, a strange feeling for someone as competitive as I.

Will I take part in the mooting competition next year?

In the words of my favourite Californian politician . . . . I'll be back!

Friday, 4 March 2011

What did you learn?

Why are Americans so keen on high school and college sports? Is it because of the joy of physical activity? The importance of staying fit? or does it run a little bit deeper?

Last year I watched Randy Pausch's last lecture and loved what he described  as the 'head fake', the idea that while you're focused on learning one thing, really you're being taught something else. Pausch gives the example of high school football, saying that the 'head fake' about playing football, is that while learning all the key skills for the game such as throwing, catching, running etc he also learned teamwork, tenacity, the importance of a good work ethic and a great deal more ('Don't complain, just work harder' is probably my favorite). Pausch's 'head fake' is what some have called the hidden curriculum and it's something which I believe runs deep at law school.

Are we expected, as law students to ace every exam and retain all the information from each of the many areas of law we've studied, emerging from our LL.B as experts in a variety of areas of the law? It'd be grand if we could, but I think that's not really the point, especially when so many of us won't go on to become solicitors/advocates and those who do will no doubt specialize in one particular field. Don't get me wrong, the LL.B course is full of great content about the law which I'll go on to use, but I think the skills learned on the course are every bit as valuable as the knowledge gained.

An example of this is 'Legal Methods', one of the classes which I had to take in my first semester of first year, here we learned about the all important distinction between obiter and ratio, how to reference correctly and the structure of the court system in Scotland and the UK. To me however, the real lesson of the class was how to read a case and how to think critically about a judgement.

Joining the mooting society is another area with a hidden curriculum. The key skill to be gained form mooting is that of 'Advocacy', learning how to construct legal arguments and submit them verbally in a court setting. Which is fantastic, but for me the real value in joining the mooting society is the positive impact it's had on my research skills. Before mooting I didn't know how to find hard-copies of cases and journal articles, (I was shamefully reliant on Westlaw), now I actually prefer using the law reports and journals found on the shelves of the library. Another massive bonus from the mooting society is working closely with a partner on a legal issue, something which I've had no direct experience of so far on my degree course.

In a world with an increasingly turbulent employment market, the more value we can find and transferable skills we can learn and be aware of the better. I strongly believe that there is a great deal to be learned from law school over and above 'black letter' law, and wherever I decide to go with my LL.B I'm sure I'll be adding more to my CV than just my academic qualifications.