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The thick of it

15 October 18

Having to look for work for the first time in many years, our author found himself charting a course through an unfamiliar world, compared with his early career experience

by Jon Kiddie

As a decent trial lawyer might know, admissibility of stolen documents was ruled on in Club Ruby v Carmine De Soto 585 SW 2d 431 (1992) – at least, where the lawyer in question has found himself out of work and watching too many courtroom dramas on telly.

As I wrote at Journal, May 2018, 16, I found myself jobless for the first time in over 20 years following Renfrewshire Law Centre’s closure due to funding cuts. Frankly, at the outset, I felt some ambivalence for this involuntary downtime. Much as I was deeply upset, the decision to close had at least also given me some sense of finality. Looking at my prospects, it was exciting to contemplate what the future might hold. And, of course, everyone enjoys holidays, right?

When I began citing made-up jurisprudence to myself was when I began to suspect it was time to return to work. When I also knew 585 SW 2d 431 is an actual American case citation for a real appellate judgment (though it has nothing to do with stolen documents) was when I realised it for sure. However, I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was missing.

Unfamiliar territory

Having been admitted as a solicitor in 1999, I am pretty close to mid-career (perhaps marginally on the youthful side of this milestone). Moreover, as I would eventually come to appreciate during my downtime, I’ve enjoyed considerable luck through most of my work life. I obtained the first traineeship for which I interviewed, and whenever I switched firms, it was at my instigation. Thus, until this year, I had never found myself out of work. Of course, those who enjoy luck don’t always realise it… until it runs out.

Maybe luck cast a shadow of complacency. At the start of my sabbatical, perhaps I misgauged the ratio between what time I would devote to my search for new employment, and what time I could afford to give to (1) DIY around the house, (2) playing with the kids and, of course, (3) indulging in courtroom dramas on telly. But I’ve never felt comfortably idle, and not having to do anything soon became not having anything to do. Therefore, as soon as (1) the house was like a show home (too many new shelves), (2) the kids were exhausted, and (3) I had broken my long-held pledge to myself never to watch Suits, I realised how many weeks had sunnily passed without meaningful response to the handful of job inquiries I had made – and that looking for a job is, in itself, a full-time job.

Long ago, between studies and work, I briefly signed on at “the labour exchange”, when it was “fashionable among all the young actors”, as Paul McGann quipped in Withnail & I. Back then, it was fashionable for the Job Centre actually to advertise jobs, displayed on little index cards that you could borrow and discuss with your adviser. Not nowadays. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to find a law job there – just any jobs really. But nowadays a member of DWP staff simply gives you a list of websites and tells you to look online. What the staff do with the rest of their time remains a bit of a mystery to me. Judging by the lack of clarity with which they responded to my queries regarding universal credit, it doesn’t seem they’re wasting much time swatting up on the new regulations.

Anyway, the job hunt would play out in cyberspace. Naturally I was aware of the existence of specialist recruitment agencies. But, oh boy, how they had proliferated since I was a trainee, apparently with no shortage of opportunities. There are large overlaps, but occasional nuggets might be hidden away on a single site. Thus, you still need to check them all, lest you miss your dream job with that Cayman Islands firm (I did actually find one). Moreover, these agents often guard the gateways to their matchmaking domains with fervour.

I didn’t remember it being this hard before. I didn’t remember feeling this way before. You know that way, when you feel, er, old.

Too much and too little?

Soon, it became apparent that the opportunities would be greater were I younger, or at least, bizarrely, less qualified. Many law jobs are advertised online as suitable only for candidates possessing “0 to 3 or 4 years PQE”, for example. One might question the propriety of this in terms of ss 5, 39 and 55 of the Equality Act 2010 etc. But, when relying on the same agents to find one work, one might feel more inclined to allow another body to take this up with them, perhaps the EHRC or even the Law Society of Scotland itself.

It feels odd to be told you’re overqualified because of your length of PQE, on one hand, yet also underqualified because you don’t possess a few years’ PQE in, for example, construction law, or maritime insurance, or whatever floats your boat. It’s hard to resist the suspicion that firms might be reluctant to hire a seasoned lawyer (who might possess perfectly transferable skills) simply because they’re not fresh out of law school and no longer perceived as malleable (particularly when the interviewers themselves possess less PQE).

The argument that you’re interested in rebooting your career in a new direction and willing to start at entry-level salary doesn’t seem to wash, even when the firm is looking for 0 years and you possess exactly that in said new direction. For some reason, the 12, 15 or 20 years’ experience you’ve already rung up in domestic conveyancing, or whatever, magically makes you overqualified for something in which you possess no experience.

It’s a bit of a crazy old world. Or maybe a crazy young world.

Journey's end

So, legal recruitment has changed, and so too, even in the modest span of my own career, has the profession itself, having apparently become much more specialised or, as recruiters like to say, “niche”. Nowadays, it’s nice to be niche. However, some lawyers proclaim themselves as specialists in areas so niche that, frankly, I struggle to conceive what it is they actually do all day (maybe they Facetime their pals at the DWP). And, back to age, some of them look astonishingly young. They must be very bright indeed to specialise in such esoteric areas, having presumably already attained some proficiency in what I would recognise as more regular areas of practice. In my junior days, it was thought desirable that a lawyer acquire practical grounding in a number of disciplines, helping them stay in work, and because knowledge of one area often informs another.

Nevertheless, a worthwhile destination often entails a lengthy journey. The journey, in my case, has certainly been very illuminating, at times anxious, and ultimately humbling. Yet I am delighted at my destination. I am very pleased that in a world of shiny corporate images and dynamic go-getters, our venerable profession still has room for those who keep pace with modern advances while remaining in touch with tradition. My new desktop PC is ultra-modern, but some of the law books beside it are ultra-old – sometimes they even contain law that’s still applicable.

No doubt, eventually, these volumes will be replaced or digitised. But what we as a profession should never regard as replaceable; what transcends tradition or modernity is our role in society. It’s about client care and helping the public navigate this crazy legal world, even when, at times, it’s changing around us faster than we realise. The future has no age, and clients come and go, but without them we are nothing. They define our profession. They define us.

Clients, it’s been too long. It’s taken me a while to realise what it was that I was really missing. But I know now. It was you. I’m glad to be back.

Jon Kiddie is an associate and civil solicitor advocate with Freelands, Wishaw

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