Opinion: Billie Kirkham
Intending trainees (and those looking for qualified positions) may not instantly think of rural towns as offering a satisfying lifestyle and range of work – but they certainly can (fuller version)
I’m now 12 months into my traineeship with MacPhee & Partners and have spent the majority of my time working in our Private Client department. In June of last year I made an important and difficult decision to move home to Oban after completing the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh.
I had been working with a firm in Edinburgh through the Diploma and had intended on staying with them to complete my traineeship, but something didn’t quite fit. As I’ve mentioned, I’m from Oban, a small town on the west coast of Scotland. I didn’t really settle in Edinburgh, having always been a home bird, and yet, until I was contacted by MacPhee & Partners, I had not once considered moving home so soon.
Why? This is something I’ve spent some time thinking about. Despite feeling as though a commercial traineeship, based in the city, was not something I would necessarily enjoy, I did what everyone else in my class was doing in third year and applied to work for the names which I had seen dotted around campus and mentioned by lecturers. For obvious reasons, universities encourage students to apply for these traineeships, but what do you do if that lifestyle just isn’t for you? I was fortunate enough to have a number of wise and wonderful professors to turn to who offered some excellent advice when I was feeling conflicted in this regard. However, before that, when I was at the stage of reading trainee blogs and university graduate publications, with a view to discovering where I might fit into the legal world, there was a gap in the media. I’m hoping to fill that gap, even just marginally, and explain why, if you don’t see yourself in one of those firms (and even if you do), you should consider thinking outside the box.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve summarised the three main reasons why I think graduates should consider moving to rural areas. They are:
It’s important to establish a balanced lifestyle and I don’t see any reason for not starting this in your junior years. In order to maintain a healthy and positive attitude at work I think it’s essential that you take time to develop outside interests.
I love being outdoors and I have two dogs. Obviously, city life made things difficult for me in this respect. I would finish work and have to sit on the motorway for an hour or so before I could reach terrain which wasn’t tarred/paved. Now I jump over my garden fence. On my lunch hour (yes – I take a lunch hour) I will either go home to take the dogs for a walk or, depending on the day’s coffee intake, go for a run to the beach.
Back to that mindblowing point about taking my lunch hour – it’s a well established fact that we’ve all got to eat and our brains function better if we down tools for a short while each day. When I first started my traineeship, I was tempted to work through lunch, but this was soon addressed by those supervising my work. Now that I have a better handle on my time management, I’m grateful that this was mentioned before it became a habit. While there won’t always be time for a full hour off, or taking the hour might mean coming in a little early/finishing a little later, I work amongst people who encourage me to look after myself and that’s refreshing.
I’ve been meeting clients, unsupervised, for five or six months now and have been managing my own caseload for over nine. I am responsible for overseeing my fees rendered/paid and for managing my workload to meet my fee target each month. This means deciding whether or not I might need to come in early or leave later in order to complete whatever I’m working on and I am given flexibility in this regard. Personally, I work better in the mornings and so, if I do need to put in some extra hours, I’ll come in early. There is no culture of mandatory late nights but if staying late suited me better, the choice is there.
Working in a firm of this size requires all hands on deck, and while this was slightly daunting at first, being given the opportunity to demonstrate my ability has given me confidence which I think is lacking in most of us when we’re fresh out of the classroom. This is confidence which I might not have discovered if I was only permitted to shadow, research, deliver documents or undertake the typical “trainee-type” tasks we are often delegated until the day we are sent a practising certificate, without having really practised at all.
Of course, my work is supervised. I am managed by one of the partners, who I work alongside each day. I needn’t list the advantages of observing a partner but must point out that solicitors of such seniority are, generally speaking, less available in larger firms. I benefit from listening to and watching her approach to matters which, in turn, is shaping how I undertake my own work.
(3) The solicitor/client relationship
Having grown up in Oban, I know most of the faces I pass in the street. Lots of my clients know or have known one or two members of my family at some point in their lives and I find that they make that connection at the outset. Immediately, we have something in common and something to talk about.
I have always envisaged working in a client-based profession. For me, this means meeting and talking to people regularly, building rapport. It has to be said that in towns, where people are a little less caught up in fast-paced, business lifestyles, there is more time to spend on establishing that solicitor/client relationship.
For some, the thrill of having large companies as clients is why they have pursued a career in law, but if you, like me, would prefer to see your clients, perhaps at their home if they’re elderly, for a face to face discussion about how you can help them, working in rural areas will give you that level of client exposure.
It is worth mentioning at this point that another important relationship is that which you have with solicitors outside of your firm and, in areas like Oban, you begin to recognise the voices at the other end of the phone very quickly. These are the same people you will meet in court and at the CPD events in town. They are a close network of people and being able to get to know them affords you the opportunity to learn from them too.
As I mentioned above, I have spent most of my traineeship working in our private client department dealing primarily with wills, powers of attorney and executries. I’m now splitting my time and also working in our family department dealing with contact disputes, divorce, separation and guardianship orders.
Looking back to when I was deliberating over the pros and cons of moving outside of the city, I think something which concerned me slightly was whether or not the work coming through the door would be enough to hold my attention. How much can really be going on in one little town, right? Wrong.
Since joining the firm I have administered executries involving assets all over the world (a chance to brush up on my French), and have come to realise that my private client tutor was not joking when she said I’d be arranging funerals! The variety of work which I have undertaken in the last year has left me satisfied that I will never be bored.
Admittedly, I was also apprehensive about losing my social life. However, I decided that, for me, the various benefits of rural life outweighed being 10 minutes from the nearest club, and I have found that, given our busy weekday lives, I see my friends almost as much as I would have if I was living in the same city as them. On Fridays I regularly pack up and head to Glasgow to get my fix of the nightlife, and my friends enjoy visiting me here to escape the city.
As for internal socialising, while we don’t have end of month parties in the boardroom followed by bar crawls and clubbing, the partners did take us all to Berlin in March for a long weekend of… well… what happened in Berlin, stays in Berlin! More recently, I attended the Argyll Solicitors’ Dinner, which was a fantastic excuse to get dressed up and meet other solicitors from all over Argyll.
I hope I’ve written enough to dispel any immediate concerns that might come to mind if you are considering life in a rural law firm. Whether you are a graduate or NQ, it is important to remember that, while we have all come from university, having studied the same subjects and graduated with the same qualifications, we are individuals and have very different personalities. As an NQ, perhaps now is the time to consider whether you are getting that lifestyle balance right. As a graduate, take the time to think about what type of traineeship is best suited to your personality and try to view the two years of training as the foundations of your career, rather than another box which needs to be ticked en route to qualification.
Billie Kirkham is a trainee with MacPhee & Partners, Oban