I would like to comment on the letter of 11 February from Guy Otten of Hempsons, Manchester, headed ‘A licence to die’,  11 February, 13. Many lawyers regard the origin of all law as being the Divine Law. Is Mr Otten really seriously suggesting that legalised self destruction, assisted by so called experts, is the way forward? Other countries have in the past found ways to destroy human life, which they regarded as worthless. I find the whole suggestion horrific. Valerie Cooper, JS Winny & Co, Craven Arms, Shropshire
One of the first steps taken by David Cameron’s new coalition government was the announcement scrapping home information packs, which will be suspended from midnight tonight (21 May) pending primary legislation to ditch them for good. A crowd-pleasing move guaranteed to win brownie points with the public, the Department for Communities and Local Government set up a high-profile, though somewhat bizarre, media briefing. Communities secretary, the former Tory party chairman Eric Pickles, made the announcement to the massed ranks of the press on a noisy pavement outside an estate agency in Battersea, with TV presenter Kirsty Alsopp on hand to give him a supportive slap on the back. Introduced in 2007, the packs where intended to speed up the home-buying process, increasing transparency and reducing the number of sales that fell through. Though the idea may have been laudable, the end result was so watered down, that the packs’ usefulness was negligible, with most sellers viewing them as a waste of money, and most buyers seeing them as irrelevant. The only winners, who will now obviously be out of their jobs, were the plethora of pack providers who have grown up over the last three years. Pickles said the move to abolish the packs had been taken swiftly to prevent any further slump in an already fragile housing market. He asserted that it would encourage sellers back to the market and help the market and the economy recovery. But HIPs are not the main factor preventing faster recovery of the housing market – the big issue is the willingness, or rather reluctance, of lenders to lend. Neither Pickles, nor his sidekick, housing minister Grant Shapps, had anything to say in regard to lending. Pickles’ only plea was that home sellers go down to the local hardware store to buy paint and other household products to boost the economy. Nor did they have anything to offer in relation to other positive reforms to improve the home-buying and selling process. Perhaps here, the government missed an opportunity – and one that gives solicitors the chance to take the lead and offer some realistic alternatives.
If you need to use a recruitment consultant, be prepared to ‘educate’ them about your change Use the full range of your contacts to add value to potential new clients, demonstrating that your value to them goes wider than your legal knowledge Draw up a list of other disciplines you have worked with on a team Be realistic about the amount of work entailed in retraining Thoroughly research your target area Check which other practice areas existing clients who you like instruct on Have a genuine interest in the area you propose retraining in Career change checklist Staying putWhile some lawyers will change to an utterly different specialism, if they are moving practice area, but remaining in the same firm, it is likely to be a move to a related area. This will still involve significant graft. Moving, for example, from general litigation to pensions or construction disputes, can be incredibly hard work. As one partner at a top-20 City firm, who moved in to pensions disputes, tells the Gazette: ‘There are commercial litigators who believe they can pretty much litigate anything. But pensions is a highly specialised area of law, and knowledge of pensions law, and the priorities of the parties involved, shapes your strategy and the advice you give to your client.’ He recommends the move, which he made after becoming a salaried partner, but cautions: ‘You need to approach the change with a degree of humility – especially if you come from one of the large practices that have made more “noise” in the firm than the area you propose to move in to.’ Areas where project teams are needed are ideal places to build up commercial and specialist knowledge while in post. The tendency among some large firms to organise themselves by the industry sector they serve, as well as by practice teams, provides opportunities here. In smaller firms though, or areas of the law where teams are not the norm, surely one of the most daunting tasks for a practitioner must be the need to build a new practice from scratch. This is, of course, more about marketing than requalifying. Lightfoot notes that being systematic and committed is essential: ‘They need to “reach out and relate” – ROAR – to new potential clients, and build an “interest group” fast – network offline and online.’ Building a new practice, she notes ‘requires giving, giving and then giving some more to your potential clients’, by ‘finding new contacts, connections, and even new business for them’. This will be a new experience of the way lawyers work, Lightfoot notes, helping lawyers who take it seriously to ‘work their personal brand by becoming the “go to” lawyer’. She advises using social media in building presence and contacts. North stresses the importance of looking to your ‘network’ through the entire process: ‘Establish and “nourish” your network. You may not get a foot in the door if you don’t have directly relevant experience and are an unknown quantity. However, if you have developed appropriate contacts, it can make a huge difference.’ Is a change of specialism worth so much heavy lifting? Armstrong concludes that it is: ‘If it is considered the right decision, it is certainly far better for the solicitor to change specialism rather than remain demotivated in their current role.’ The College of Law has developed a two-day retraining course in association with the Junior Lawyers Division aimed at enabling qualified solicitors practising in other areas to cope with the immediate demands of commercial practice. It is a common observation among middle-aged lawyers that the increasing need to specialise very early in a legal career has changed the face of the profession. Time spent in a more general or rounded practice has been much reduced, leading to a situation where lawyers are making key decisions about their future specialism much earlier. But what happens when the supply of practitioners in their chosen area outstrips demand? And what if a lawyer has regrets about the choices they made at an early stage in their career? As career coach Tessa Armstrong, who specialises in coaching junior lawyers and associates, puts it: ‘In my experience of coaching junior solicitors, their choice of specialism is often one of the main factors affecting job satisfaction.’ She adds: ‘It is not uncommon for solicitors to have found themselves specialising in an area of law by default, rather than through careful thought about their career aspirations and personal strengths.’ A difficult economy has brought the issue to a head for a lot of lawyers. Many have found themselves made redundant, or may be seeking to negotiate the changed focus of the law firm they work for. Lawyers returning to practice after a career break face a similar set of challenges. So demand for support in this area is high. As the Law Society’s Rita Oscar explains: ‘With the hit of the recession, the Law Society was conscious that the current climate was causing practitioners to seek to retrain in other practice areas.’ She adds: ‘We were receiving calls from solicitors who had faced redundancy because their area of practice had been hit by the recession; individuals who were on a career break and now found that they had to return for financial reasons; and sole practitioners who were looking to expand their areas of work.’ In response, the Law Society developed a one-day introductory training session to help solicitors considering a career move. A pilot of the training session offering an introduction to wills, probate and trusts was held in London in June 2009; the event reached its full capacity of 67 delegates with a waiting list of 85. The event was repeated in London in September 2009, and in 2010 in Leeds. The first event to be held this year will be an introduction to employment law. At £100, the price of such courses is kept deliberately keen, allowing lawyers to follow a key piece of advice when considering a change – that they do plenty of homework. Rachael North, director at recruitment consultant Laurence Simons, confirms that appetite to make a change among lawyers: ‘The recession has been extremely tough for many, and there is a definite appetite for “change” in the legal market.’ And as Armstrong notes: ‘In circumstances when solicitors want to change specialisms, it is really important to discuss their reasons for wanting to leave their current role to ensure that changing specialisms is the right thing for them to do.’ Chrissie Lightfoot, author of The Naked Lawyer, concurs: ‘Simply ask yourself the following questions and answer truthfully. Am I truly interested in this area of the law? Am I truly passionate about it? Do I really care, about the type of client I will be serving? Will I love what I do now and for the foreseeable future? Is it a job, a career or a lifestyle? If your answer is not “lifestyle”, think again.’ Making a change in a difficult market, though, is not straightforward. As North’s fellow director Portia White explains: ‘Even though people want to change specialism, it is extremely difficult. This market is highly competitive.’ Opportunities to change can feel even more limited for a highly experienced practitioner, where they may combine an unwillingness to accept a temporary drop in their pay, with being that much further on from any experience they had of a more general practice. Some also feel there is some prejudice against an ‘old dog’ learning new tricks. Lightfoot cautions that despite these very real challenges some of the barriers may be down to a natural reticence experienced by lawyers contemplating a change. ‘They’re probably thinking “what if I fail?”. Or, even if they have the confidence, may be asking the question: “where do I start?”’ Both mental blocks can be overcome, she advises, but only if the individual can ‘let go of their ego and/or self-doubt’. For any who move to a senior in-house legal position from private practice, it is accepted that there will be things they do not know. Very few in private practice will have an insight into the in-house legal department’s broad ‘ownership’ of risk management. More junior lawyers may also have opportunities here. As one recruitment consultant tells the Gazette: ‘The candidate most in demand is typically the 10-year qualified solicitor with a very commercial outlook. If they also specialise in an in-demand area like banking and finance or telecoms, then they can, even now, take the pick of positions.’ That means that businesses that are either not big brands, or are unable to confirm an offer quickly, miss out on such candidates, he says. They therefore can accept that the job spec they drew up for the position may be one they need to depart from, accepting that they will attract better candidates if they take some responsibility for building up gaps in expertise. ‘You’ve already proven that you are a technically competent lawyer, regardless of the area of law,’ Lightfoot says. A key part of changing practice, therefore, is to ‘capitalise on your human capital and social capital’. With particular reference to the in-house sector, North points out that some lawyers will be in a stronger position to change direction than others: ‘For example, technology lawyers can move a little more freely within the broader TMT sector. Or lawyers with IP skills may be able to move a little more easily around the fast moving consumer goods and retail sectors.’ Be aware of why you want to change
Cuts to civil legal aid will leave people unable to pursue their rights and increase the workload of the tribunal system, the senior president of tribunals has warned. In his 2011 annual report, Robert Carnwath highlighted the likely effect of the proposed cuts on the voluntary sector. He said: ‘I am very concerned at the implications of removing the majority of civil legal aid, including legal help, without investing in alternatives. ‘For example, citizens advice bureaux play an essential role in explaining welfare benefit decisions, helping appellants decide whether to appeal, and helping them to prepare their case. ‘Without their work, not only will many be left in ignorance of their rights, or without the ability to pursue them, but the load of the tribunals may increase rather than decrease, both because cases will come to the tribunal which could (with proper advice) have been avoided or settled, and because lack of preparation may add to the length of hearings.’ Carnwath’s comments follow concerns over the cuts raised by lord chief justice Lord Judge on behalf of the judiciary last week. Figures in Carnwath’s annual report showed a rise in claims in the employment, and social security and child support tribunals. He noted that the mental health jurisdiction deals with nearly 30,000 applications and referrals every year, ‘which far exceeds government forecasts’.
New rules take effect today that could see aspiring solicitors barred from entering the profession because of a police caution or penalty notice. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has introduced a new suitability test that requires applicants to give details of every legal transgression from their past. The authority says it ‘may refuse’ applications from those who have previously received a local warning or caution from the police, or those who have paid a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) for offences such as being drunk and disorderly, or cannabis possession. The new rules largely codify existing regulations, but there are concerns that they will deter people guilty of an isolated lapse.Differences between the standards expected of applicant solicitors and existing solicitors are considered by some to challenge the assumption that all should be treated the same by regulators. ‘People do have a past which cannot be changed and people can reform,’ said Grace Cowling, a member of the Junior Lawyers Division committee. ‘What about those who have slightly colourful pasts and wish to reform? Or perhaps those who have completed their education later in life or who have had police encounters as youths? ‘More effort needs to be taken to inform university students who are interested in a legal career that their behaviour as an adult is key and may bar them from entering the profession. It is easy to imagine a student receiving a PND or caution for being drunk and disorderly.’ Sabina Rinker, a director of Guise Solicitors, has handled reviews for students challenging refusals of entry. She said: ‘The unfairness of these new regulations is that the SRA is expected to apply the same professional requirements to student applications as apply to admitted members of the profession. Yet no solicitor would be struck off for receiving a PND.’ The SRA says around one in 20 applications currently requires investigation under existing character and suitability guidelines, with only a small fraction leading to a bar. A spokesman said: ‘It was still evident that we could do more to ensure we had further relevant information to hand when deliberating on an applicant’s suitability and whether or not they presented a risk to the public or the profession. ‘That’s why the new Suitability Test has been drawn up, to make the process more transparent and to give the applicant earlier opportunity to present the information we need to make the best decision.’
Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly has told insurers he expects them to ‘vigorously defend’ cases after civil litigation reforms are enacted. Djanogly told an insurance industry conference last week that civil justice reforms will provide a more level playing field between claimants and defendants. In return, Djanogly said the government would expect insurers to keep to their promises that premiums will fall as a result. ‘We hope and expect our efforts to be rewarded with cheaper insurance costs and I welcome the industry’s commitment to that,’ he told the Economist Insurance Summit conference. ‘You should vigorously defend claims seen as invalid – too many people see low-value claims as an easy way to make money in the knowledge that they’re unlikely to be contested.’ Djanogly said the government would promote before-the-event insurance as a way of funding legal expenses and predicted the cost of such cover would come down. Under the government’s proposals, currently before the House of Lords, after-the-event insurance will no longer be recoverable from the losing defendant. Djanogly said he expected the reforms to become law within weeks. The minister sought to reassure claimant solicitors fearing a loss of income. ‘There is no reason why lawyers should not compete for business on the basis that claimants will keep their damages after the case,’ Djanogly said. ‘Rather than advertising for business on the basis that claimants keep all their damages, they can advertise on the basis they keep damages on a proportionate costs system.’ Djanogly’s speech came as the leading 10 ATE insurers revealed they had not been consulted or approached by the government to discuss civil litigation reforms.
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