Extracted from ‘Legal Profession: Is it for you?’. Because knowledge is the best Christmas present.
What are the personal qualities which every lawyer must have and why are they so important?
So much of modern legal practice is based on trust. If banks could not trust lawyers to look after their money, the whole conveyancing system would grind to a halt. Nobody would be able to buy or sell property. Witnesses may lie but judges and magistrates have to be able to trust the word of the advocate who stands in front of them. Lawyers on opposite sides in a court case may each be fighting to win but at the same time they have to be able to trust each other to play by the rules. It is why integrity is right at the top of the list when the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority or any other professional body assesses somebody’s fitness to be a lawyer. If one lawyer cheats it can undermine public confidence in the entire profession. So what does integrity mean?
It means more than not being dishonest. It’s about strength of character. It’s about determination to do the right thing, whatever the personal cost. It means being prepared to refuse a client’s instructions rather than bow to pressure to do something which is not quite right. Easy enough! You might think. There are plenty of other clients. But suppose that the client who wants you to compromise your integrity is the one who provides 60% of your business? Not so easy.
The importance of integrity is recognized in the full title of a solicitor, which is ‘Solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales.’ Until 2009 the title was ‘Solicitor of the Supreme Court’. But when the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords was itself renamed as the Supreme Court, a new title had to be found. It means that whatever a client may want, a solicitor’s first duty is to the administration of justice.
Being streetwise goes hand-in-hand with integrity. It is a dangerous world out there. You are now more likely to be mugged on the internet than in the street. And one of the biggest threats to the wallet is conveyancing fraud. It’s a billion dollar industry. The crime is one of impersonation.
Typically someone will dupe a lawyer into thinking that they own a property which belongs to someone else. It will usually be an empty property or one which is tenanted. They will have already found out from the Land Registry the name and address of the rightful owner and will pretend that they are that person. They may even produce forged papers to convince the lawyer that they are whom they pretend.
The lawyer then acts on the ‘sale’. The buyer’s lawyer assumes that the seller’s lawyer has carried out all due diligence checks as to the seller’s bona fides and pays the completion monies into the seller’s lawyer’s client account. Following completion of the sale, the seller’s lawyer passes on the completion money to the bogus seller, who disappears into the night. Then the rightful owner turns up and demands that the property is returned to them. So who picks up the £500,000 bill?
Well it can’t be the buyer’s lawyer because they are entitled to rely on you, as the Seller’s lawyer, to have made sure that you are acting for the rightful owner. They have done everything correctly. You’re the one who has been duped. So it is down to you – or your insurer – to make good the loss. Well that was the position until January 2017, when in the case of Dreamvar (UK) Limited v Mishcon de Reya,  3316 (Ch), the High Court ruled that buyer’s lawyers, Mishcons, were liable for a £1.1M ‘owner’ fraud, even though they had followed good conveyancing practice to the letter. It seems that the judge was more influenced by Mishcon’s generous insurance policy than the absence of error on their part. And there is another more sophisticated version of this fraud in which the fraudster impersonates an entire conveyancing firm. This fraud is about duping the buyer’s lawyer.
You as the buyer’s lawyer will be dealing with a reputable conveyancing firm which is acting for the seller. Or at least you think you are. Let’s call them Buggs Brown Solicitors (apologies to any real solicitors of that name). They correspond with you using a Buggs Brown letterhead. Only the letterhead is a forgery. The person you are dealing with isn’t a real Buggs Brown solicitor: they are a fraudster. Eventually you pay £500,000 to Buggs Brown’s client account to complete the ‘purchase’. Only it’s not a real solicitors’ client account. The money disappears off into to the ether. Title to the property is not transferred. The real Bugs Brown know nothing about the transaction. You have been conned.
A third fraud is where a fraudster hacks into lawyer’s computer system and sends out emails to clients and other solicitors pretending that the firm’s bank details have been changed. Money intended for the solicitors’ firm will then be transmitted instead by those clients to the fraudster’s account. It is why, to cover themselves, law firms now routinely warn clients and third parties not to be taken in by bogus emails notifying them of changed account details.
Being streetwise means being alert to the tiniest clues which indicate that something is not quite right. Maybe there is undue haste to complete the transaction. Maybe the client doesn’t want to see you and acts through intermediaries. Maybe there are spelling mistakes or use of strange terminology in correspondence and emails.
When preparing legal documentation, errors and omissions will be expensive. Imagine preparing a residential ground-lease which reserves an annual ground-rent of £10,000 instead the nominal £100 which the parties intended. If the client or the other party spots the mistake before signing the document, it can be corrected. But supposing they don’t? Supposing it is another ten years down the line when a new landlord looks at the lease and wonders why they are only receiving £100 from the leaseholder instead of the £10,000 which the lease states should be paid. There is a dispute.
There is also a tendency for modern judges to interpret the terms of a document literally even when those stated terms do not make any commercial sense. So if the lease says £10,000, then that is what the leaseholder is going to pay. It does not matter that no residential leaseholder in their right mind would agree to pay an annual £10,000 ground-rent for a flat which they own outright. Even if the typo is spotted in good time and corrected it still undermines client confidence in your competence to look after their interests. Someone who is paying you £200 an hour should not also have to act as your spellchecker.
Being a People Person
Like ex-president Barak Obama, you may exude an old world charm to which the rest of the world warms. For everyone else there’s Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. Yes – it’s true. Human relationships are a skill which can be learned. And Carnegie was its greatest teacher. The rules are pretty basic.
It’s about taking a genuine interest in people and the world around you. It’s about looking outwards. It is about taking the trouble to remember somebody’s name. It is about showing that you are pleased to see someone. It is about making that person feel valued. It is about understanding what is important to that person. It’s about never putting someone down. It’s about offering sincere appreciation to someone: never flattery. And of course you will never be tempted to openly criticize someone or complain. And it doesn’t matter whether that person is a sharp-suited businessman – or woman – or a prisoner in a cell. The rules are the same.
The law is a people-profession. It is all about how you interact with your clients; prospective clients; the lawyer on the other side; the judge or magistrate who is sitting in front of you – and all the people in between. Don’t like meeting people? Then go and be an accountant. Or drive a tube train. But don’t be a lawyer. Because meeting people is what the law is all about.
Being Passionate About Your Work
What all celebrity lawyers have in common is that they are passionate about their work. If they were not passionate, they would not have been able to develop the expertise and the niche on which their fame depends. If you are not passionate about the law and becoming a lawyer, don’t even take the first step. Find something else which you are passionate about. If you are not passionate about becoming a lawyer, you may not even make it through to qualification. And if you do, what sought of average legal career will you carve out for yourself? Passion is the inner motivator. If you are passionate about your career, you will master all of the other skills and qualities which make a good lawyer.
Being a Good Communicator
This goes hand-in-hand with being a people person. If you don’t have a genuine liking for people, how are you going to communicate with them?
Barristers have to be good on their feet and able to command a room. They have to be able to respond instantly to any situation. They can’t clam up. They must also be able to express themselves in writing and in the drafting of court documents. All solicitors must be able to communicate effectively on a one-to-one basis both verbally and in writing. If they can command a room as well: that is a bonus. But like people-skills: verbal and written communication are things which can be learned.
If you want to be confident on your feet, join a public speaking club. It is cheap and you will be practicing week-in week-out in a supportive environment. Toastmasters International are the brand-leader. It was founded more than a century ago in Bloomington, Illinois by Ralph Smedley. As Director of Education for the YMCA he saw the need for men to be able to speak, conduct meetings, plan programmes and work on committees. That was in 1905. It was almost seven decades later that Toastmasters officially opened up its meetings to women. The organisation now has branches in every City in the World. Until the late 1980s there was only one Toastmasters Club in London, which met fortnightly at the US Navy Building at Grosvenor Square. That Club still exists under the name ‘Grosvenor Square Toastmasters Club’ even though it now meets at the New Cavendish Club in Marble Arch. Dozens more Clubs have since joined it.
Every Toastmasters’ meeting begins with an impromptu ‘topics’ session in which members are picked out of the audience and given random topics on which to speak for up to two minutes. Its purpose is to help participants to ‘think-on-their-feet’. The second half of the evening starts with prepared speeches. All speeches, whether impromptu or prepared, receive constructive feedback and encouragement. Unfortunately there are as yet no clubs for written communication. Yes – every town has its Writers Circles. But those are for people who want to write stories not compose business correspondence.
Business writing is something which has to be learned solo. Forget the essays which you wrote at school. Business writing is different. It has its own rules which have more in common with the secrets of selling than artistic impression. It is about getting a point across: whether that point is to inform the reader about a state of affairs or to persuade the reader to take a course of action – such as paying an outstanding bill. Whilst there are books on business letter writing, it is a skill which can only be fully learned by doing. And of course by developing your own business style.
Start by looking at other peoples’ business correspondence. Try to spot the differences between something which is well-written and persuasive – and something which is incoherent and meaningless. It is said that, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. But not if the writing is littered with typos and an incoherent message. What the phrase means is that a well written letter carries power. It achieves results. Look for a piece of writing which is so good you want to frame it. Then break it down.
Look at the structure of the letter and how it gets its point across. How does the letter open? Why was it written? How does it convince the reader? And what is it asking the reader to do? Use it as your template. Then practice writing a similar letter of your own. Even though traditional letter writing has largely given way to text and email, the principles are the same. But email and text will never supplant letter-writing completely.
There is a time and a place for email and text. They are informal and chatty. But in the law there will always be a need for more formal written communication. Only a letter can provide that formality. Within the legal profession there are also conventions to be observed when lawyers communicate with other lawyers, third parties and with clients. They all require an element of detachment. Disregard those conventions and you may seen as ‘unprofessional’.
A client expects a lawyer to look and communicate like a lawyer. If they are paying £100 for a 45 minute consultation, they want to see somebody in a suit. They want to be addressed as Mr and Mrs Jones – not Bob and Angie. If they see somebody dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt they will feel cheated. When lawyers write to each other or to a third party, many still use the Royal ‘We’ as in, “We are acting for …..”. The ‘We’ may change to the more personal ‘I’ when the lawyer writes to their own client: but not always. But the form of communication which many lawyers find most difficult is networking.
Remember that for a lawyer in private practice, it is not just about doing the work. It also about getting the work. Why should a prospective client bring their work to you instead of the other solicitor who works down the road? It’s not just about you being the cheapest. If you are someone whom they already know and you can inspire them with confidence, they are more likely to instruct you.
One way of getting to know prospective business clients is through networking. It is about being able to walk into a large room full of strangers and engage with at least some of them. It requires all your skills as a people-person and as an effective communicator. You are not, ‘working the room’. You are not selling anything except yourself. But if can you can come away from the network event with at least one new business contact, it has been a success. But that is only the start. Contacts have to be followed up. Like people-skills, networking is something which can be learned. Practice it.
Being Able to Think Creatively
So much of the law is about process: whether it is following through a conveyancing transaction or defending a criminal prosecution. Anyone can follow process. But what makes a lawyer is the ability to see beyond the process and use it to get the result which your client needs – or as near as possible. Think about the problem questions which you did at school. Thinking creatively is about analysing a situation, knowing what questions to ask, identifying options and then being able to provide a client with a clear and reasoned recommendation as to what option would be right for them.
Being Able to Work at Speed
Suppose your normal hourly charge-out rate is £200. By quoting your client a flat fee of £1,000 for acting on the purchase of their house, you are gambling on the transaction not taking more than five hours of your time. If it takes ten hours of your time, your hourly charge-out is effectively reduced to £100 and your firm will bear the loss and you will not meet your yearly target.
It is why it is important to be able to turn work around quickly. No-one wants a slow lawyer. Not clients. They don’t want to have to keep chasing or to worry about the deal falling through. Not estate agents, whose commission structure means that they only get paid when the transaction completes.
Working quickly doesn’t mean cutting corners. What it does mean is an ability to organize your day efficiently and make best use of your time and the resources which are available to you. It means learning how to delegate, assuming that there is someone to whom you can delegate. Speed should also come with experience, once you have got a ‘feel’ for the process. It is why the most junior lawyer in the firm may not be the most economic for the client if it takes them twice as long to do the job.