I’m not dead!

Gosh, this is a little neglected, isn’t it? I do apologise. Allow me to sweep away the cobwebs and tumbleweed.

I had not intended to neglect this, but I have had a summer of exams, illness and other things. However, I do intend to return. I’m sure I shall be spouting off about something or other sooner rather than later.

Watch this space.

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The first marks

I have finally received my first marks back from the two pieces of work I have submitted so far. Alright, it was about a week ago, but I’ve been busy. Video games don’t play themselves you know. You might remember me saying that I need to achieve at least a 2:1 to have any real chance of getting a position after the “education” part of my training.* You might also remember that my marks from the first academic year (or two, in my case) don’t count towards my final grade.

The marks are out of 90, and mean the following:

Anything over 70: A first.

60-70: 2:1

50-60: 2:2

40-50: A third.

My first mark was a 56, so a strong 2:2. I was a little disheartened by this at first. While my first year’s marks don’t count, I obviously want to be hitting the 2:1 scale before they start to count. Also, some applications for work experience schemes will ask how you did in your first year. Surely this was not an auspicious start.

However, I felt a lot better after reading the marking comments and discussing it with the tutor who marked the papers. The places where I lost marks really fell into two main areas. Formatting and quoting. Essentially, I didn’t annotate properly, and I didn’t realise that I should quote from legal journals as well. I knew the stuff. I found relevant cases and judgements. I realised what the important points were, and addressed them. I had actually read some of the journals for pointers, but incorrectly thought we were obliged to only quote cases.

I’m actually feeling pretty good about this now. I’m told that if I had known to address these issues, my mark would have been on the border of a 2:1 or a first. This means I’m on the right track. My only complaint is that I should have received the mark for my first piece of work before the second was due. I didn’t. When the second mark came back, it was marked down for all the same reasons (I got a 58, a shade off a 2:1). Had I received the first feedback in time, it would have achieved the magic mark.

All in all, I’m feeling pretty good about it. There is work to do, but there is every indication that I’m capable of doing it. Before the end of December, I’d not written an essay in about 12 years. I was really worried that the actual academia part of the degree. While these marks aren’t exceptional, they are an indication that I can do it. I’m feeling pretty good.

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*Irony: Most lawyers I know say they learned all the important lessons in the vocational part of training.

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Making plans, part two

In the last post, I talked about what happens after you’ve completed the LLB. If you intend to become a lawyer, you go off to do one of the two post degree vocational courses, and then join the fight for either a training contract or a pupillage.

If, like me, you have decided that you do want to work in the law after your degree, you essentially have two decisions to make. Do you want to be a barrister or a solicitor? And which area of law do you wish to practice in?

As I said last time, it’s no use making these decisions halfway through your third year, in the majority of cases. There’s no point setting your sights on international contract dispute management if all of your optional modules were geared towards, say, human rights in the UK. The ship has sailed, and you forgot to make sure you were on the right one.

I keep returning to the point that it’s never too early to make these choices, and that it can easily be too late. So I must know exactly what I’m aiming for, right? Wrong. I’ve not got a clue. I haven’t yet made the basic choice about whether to choose the route of a barrister or a solicitor.

Being a barrister is the bit all law students dream of, right? When we set out on this course, we imagine ourselves strutting around the court, robed and wigged, setting the world to rights. Advocacy is a seductive role. But I also really feel the attraction of being a solicitor. Building a relationship with clients, giving advice that could avoid court altogether. Both streams appeal, but I’ve got to pick one.

Becoming a barrister seems slightly harder, as it is much more competitive. It’s also a little less secure, as the barrister is basically self employed, paying fees and rent to the chambers he or she gets into. If you join a chambers, you’re essentially joining an organised collective, rather than a firm. But it is appealing, which is why it’s massively oversubscribed, and people are fighting tooth and nail to get appointed anywhere.

Becoming a solicitor isn’t easy either. It’s also oversubscribed, but perhaps not as badly as the Bar. I don’t want to make this sound like the “soft option,” because it’s not. I really do find the idea of being a solicitor as appealing, but for different reasons.

As well as this, there’s the sector. I already have some ideas, like any early Law student must. I don’t think I’ve any interest in tax law. Arguing about whether a jaffa cake constitutes a cake or a biscuit seems to me slightly like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. A diversion at most. Shame, because tax law is, I’m given to understand, very well paid.

So what appeals to me right now? Well, each of the following does:

Crime

Employment

Intellectual Property

Human Rights

Communications (with particular reference to current online comms)

Shipping (This one sticks out on this list)

Immigration

See what I mean? That list is purely off the top of my head, without looking into anything too hard. Others will come up. I may complete an area of study and find I love it, and I’m good at it.* I may complete one I thought I’d love, and hate it. Who knows?

I’m doing what I can to whittle this list down. I’ve already been (tentatively) offered a mini-pupillage in one of these areas. I am unutterably excited by this. As well as looking good on a CV, I will see the process close up, and hopefully get a good opportunity to ask a lot of questions. I’m doing what I can to seize this chance with both hands.

As well as things like these (and I will start to apply for vacation schemes and the like soon), I need to look at some of the information about the profession. Money isn’t the big thing, but how much do some sectors earn? If I’ve got a straight choice between two areas, but one earns three times the amount of the other, I’d be mad to not consider that.** Which areas are more employable? I’d like to see figures about the ratio of applicants to places broken down by sector, but I can’t find anything.

I like the idea of being a “high street” solicitor. I like the idea of employment advocacy. I like the idea of being a criminal defence barrister. I like the idea of advising on Human Rights, or communications disputes, or standing up for unrepresented asylum seekers, or a dozen other things. But I can’t do them all.

I will have to pick, and soon. But at the moment, I’m just enjoying to occasional decent argument about legal theories, and preparing for exciting work experience opportunities. I’ll let you know how I get on.

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*A good example of this: I thought I’d hate both tort law and property, but I’m actually starting to find them really interesting.

** I’m in the enviable position of not having kids, so as long as I earn a comfortable wage, I’m reasonably happy.

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Making plans, part one.

I suspect this is a subject to which I shall return on many occasions over the coming years, for obvious reasons: What am I going to do after the degree?

I should make it clear, I’m in the first year of a five or six year course.* I know it’s early to be thinking about this, but is it too early? Well, no. It’s well documented that the legal profession is already a hard place to gain a foothold. Every year, more students finish their LPC or BPTC** and start applying for training contracts and pupillages (anyone reading this who isn’t in the legal field would probably benefit from reading the footnote to that one). There are far more applicants than there are training contracts or pupillages, and the ones who are unsuccessful one year will be applying again the next. The applicants mount up. Add to that the incoming cuts in legal aid, and it’s a tough world.

None of this means it’s impossible. I’m thinking about what I want to do for two reasons:

Firstly, in the second year of a Law degree (so third and fourth years for me), a student has to pick modules. These need to be chosen pretty carefully. If I decide to go into telecoms law, and haven’t done the relevant modules, I’m going to look pretty stupid in the interview, if I even get that far. Chances are I won’t, because why would I be interviewed ahead of the dozens of applicants who did do the relevant modules?

Secondly, and possibly more importantly, work experience. Well, we don’t call it that. If you’re doing it with a barrister’s chambers, it’s a mini-pupillage. If you’re doing it with a solicitor’s firm, it’s often referred to as a vacation scheme. While this might sound like that week you spent doing the photocopying during your GCSE years, it can be incredibly useful. You get involved, read case papers, see law at work. The only similarity with that work experience you did at school is that it might help you decide what you want.

These work experience schemes are more important than that though. Having done one or two in the relevant area strongly helps your application. It shows that you’ve looked at this specialisation, have put the work in to research it, and have still decided it’s what you want. It shows that you’re not just firing applications off to anyone who might give you a training contract.

Legal Bizzle recently wrote a series of posts explaining this sort of thing from the recruiter’s point of view. Consider that for one in house position, he received nearly 80 applications. He has to whittle that down to a handful for the purposes of interview. He’s not going to give it to the applicant who has a bit of experience in criminal law, and is trying to pretend that’s relevant to his need for someone with a strong background in contracts. Bizzle tells me that application was for a paralegal role, but the principle remains the same.

So yes, I’m already thinking about what I want to do after I’ve completed the LLB. I can’t say I’m getting that far in deciding what I want, but that’s for another day.

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*It’s six years, but there is the option to do the last two years in one. I don’t think it’s an option I’ll take up, but who knows?
** Legal Practice Course or Bar Professional Training Course. The LPC is the vocational course for a Law graduate wishing to become a solicitor, and the BPTC is the equivalent for barristers. Once the student has passed the relevant course, they have to complete the vocational part of their training. A prospective solicitor obtains a training contract, while the barrister needs to obtain a pupillage. Their training isn’t complete until they’ve done this part and until it’s done, they don’t get to say “I’m a solicitor/barrister”.

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Pressing charges

There are many common misconceptions about law and the legal process that pop up in the public eye or mainstream media. For the most part, these are understandable, but can lead to serious misunderstandings. I would like to address some of these as they pop up here and there. Today, I’d like to look at pressing charges.

We often see reports saying that person A is pressing charges against person B, or signs in shops saying that they will press charges against any shoplifters. In terms of criminal charges, these are misguided. This thinking is perhaps a hangover from the times when prosecutions were brought by private individuals. With some exceptions*, most criminal prosecutions are brought by one body: the Crown Prosecution Service.

To use an example, let’s imagine that Fred Smith goes for a drink with his mate Dave Jones. After a drink or two, Fred and Dave begin to argue. Dave storms off to the toilet, leaving Fred on his own at the table, with Dave’s items on the table. Fred stands up, slips Dave’s expensive new phone into his pocket, and walks home before Dave returns. Dave returns to the table, realises his phone is gone, and reports it to the Police.

As it happens, this pub has CCTV inside and out. The report is assigned to an officer, who goes to the pub and watches the CCTV. This is of good quality, and clearly shows Fred stand up, slip the phone into his pocket and walk out.

The officer has now established what has happened. We know where the phone went, and how. The important issue now is why. There’s a reason for this. Every criminal offence contains points to prove. Theft is a pretty simple one: A theft occurs if a person dishonestly appropriates an item belonging to another, with the intention to permanently deprive that person of it. The offence is not complete until all of these criteria have been fulfilled. If the taking of the item is not dishonest, it’s not a theft. If the intention is not to permanently deprive, it’s not a theft.

Why is this? Well, there are a few reasons. Let us imagine that Fred wakes up the next day, calls Dave and says: “I’m sorry mate, I’ve got your phone. I never intended to keep it, I just wanted to annoy you for the night after we argued.” This could be construed as a prank, an intended annoyance between two friends who have temporarily fallen out. There is an important distinction to notice here: Fred is saying he never intended to keep the phone or keep it away from Dave. He claims he never intended to permanently deprive. Whether this is believed or not is a matter of perception, possibly to be decided by a court.

Now let’s imagine it slightly differently. On his way home, Fred flings the phone into the river, chuckling as he does so. Some people might consider that theft has no occurred, because Fred does not profit by it. This is not so. The phone has been dishonestly appropriated (he slipped it into his pocket when his friend was unaware), and Dave isn’t getting it back. The offence is complete.

Now let’s imagine a third option. Fred wakes up, realises he has the phone, and immediately calls Dave. He tells Dave he is sorry, that he was angry, and he will return the phone. He did intend to give the phone to his son, but thought better of it in the morning. Is the offence complete? Surely not, if Fred has now called in to offer the phone back? Well, it’s not quite that clear cut. If we accept that Fred did, when he pocketed the phone, intend to dispose of it, then at the time he took the phone the intention was to permanently deprive. The offence is complete. Whether charging him with the offence is in the public interest is a different matter that the CPS will have to consider.

But what does this have to do with who presses charges? Well, consider it a primer. Let’s say the last example is the one we’re working with. Let’s say that the report is made before Fred calls Dave to offer the phone back, and the report is allocated to PC Pelham. PC Pelham goes to the pub, watches the CCTV, and sees Fred pocket the phone before walking off. He updates Dave on the matter, who says he’s just had a voicemail from Fred, explaining how daft he feels, how he regrets it now, and he’ll be right round to drop off the phone. Dave explains to PC Pelham that he doesn’t want to press charges because Fred is his friend, and he’s got his phone back anyway.

This is where the fallacy is. If anyone is to press charges and take the matter to court, it will be the CPS. PC Pelham will provide the evidence to a CPS lawyer, who will decide if the charge is to be authorised. Dave would never have been the man to press the charge, so his desire to not do so is relatively immaterial.

Now, in this case, the CPS would very likely not authorise the charge. It is a minor offence, the victim does not wish to support a prosecution, and the phone is back with the owner. As well as deciding if the offence has been committed, the CPS must consider two other factors: Is there a realistic prospect of conviction, and would this be in the public interest? It could be argued that the answer to both of these questions is no. If Dave isn’t willing to say Fred stole his phone in court, there are obvious problems.

So why is this the case? Why does the victim not get the ultimate say in whether charges are brought? Well, there are some sound reasons for this. Let’s imagine a domestic violence victim. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the victim is female, and the abuser is her male partner.**

One night, Mr Bloggs kicks Mrs Bloggs down the stairs. He’s a nasty piece of work, and Mrs Bloggs has nowhere else to go. She doesn’t report it, but the hospital are concerned, and they tell the Police about her injuries. The Police arrive and speak to Mrs Bloggs on her own, not in the presence of Mr Bloggs. Mrs Bloggs breaks down, and admits to years of abuse.

Now, in this situation, what do you think happens if Mrs Bloggs has the final say on whether charges are levelled against her husband? Mr Bloggs waits until she is released, grabs her by the throat, and makes it perfectly clear what will happen if the charges aren’t dropped. He never gets to court, the cycle repeats, and eventually we’re at Mrs Bloggs’ graveside. If we’re lucky, Mr Bloggs is in cuffs, but it’s not likely. However, if the onus is taken away from Mrs Bloggs, and the charging decision made by a third party, the only thing left to consider is whether there is a realistic chance of convicting Mr Bloggs. He knows that threatening Mrs Bloggs won’t affect that decision.

Whether or not the CPS always get those decisions about whether to charge or not correct is a different matter, but it is plain to see that the reasons for the decision resting with a third party are sound.

*There are some other bodies that can bring criminal prosecutions, such as Trading Standards, HMRC and others. I’m restricting this to the example of the CPS, purely to make it clear that criminal proceedings are brought by a body, rather than individuals or victims.

** This is the majority of cases, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the exclusive scenario. Men are abused by women, and same sex relationships aren’t exempt either.

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A good argument

 

When you start studying Law, you’d better be ready for a good argument. If you’ve not got the basic skills for that, you’d better learn. And quickly. Much of studying and practicing law is putting across your side of an argument across, and if all you can bring to the table is “I’m right because I am”, then you’re dead in the water.

The first module we started with was an introduction to Law. It was a two hour arguing session. I was amazed at the arguments people put forward, and how they did it. I’ve recently heard all kinds of gems, both in class and out. I’ve been told how the Germans are all authoritarian and violent, how wikileaks has proven that AIDS was invented in a lab in the Congo, how we obviously didn’t land on the moon, and other gems. Now, when challenged, most of these arguments have devolved into “It is true, I promise.” This isn’t an argument. It’s an assertion, backed up with nothing. If I, or others, challenge you, and your best response is akin to stamping like an angry child, then you’ve lost. You brought a knife to a gunfight, and it didn’t work out. You simply didn’t bring the tools for the job.*

If you want to make an argument, keep some things in mind:

- Don’t just say “this is the way things are”. I’m looking at that point about Germans here. If you’re going to make sweeping claims about an entire nation, and the way they act, you’d better be able to back it up. If you can only point to the Nazis, then sorry, you’re not trying. A nation did a thing once does not equal a nation always does that thing.

- Choose your examples wisely. Now, when the point about Germans was made, I had to listen to how one person had an ex that spent some time in Germany, and knew a couple of people like that. Well, bully for you. It proves nothing. I heard about how someone else had been there once. In total, they had experience of less then ten Germans, and most of those second hand. If your evidence group isn’t enough for a football team, it’s not enough to extrapolate to an entire nation. I could, at this point, have pointed out that I spent nearly ten years in Germany as an army child. I could have pointed out that I go there about once a year. But that destroys the point. It’s not relevant. It’s one person’s experience of life in that country.

- But do bring evidence. The Wikileaks/AIDS thing? Not a scrap. Nothing. My point was this: If this news had been in there, and there was proof that one of the most devastating diseases of our time was a man made atrocity, wouldn’t the media have picked up on it? If you can’t evidence a claim like that, you’re going to get laughed at. I am going to ask where your tinfoil hat is.

- Ad hominem is bad. Ad hominem attacks are where you attack the person, and not the argument. If you can’t pick apart the argument being made, don’t go after the person. It makes you look stupid. If your response to my point about how everyone deserves a fair trial is to attack me personally, you’ve lost. You’ve got no point to make, and you’re just embarassing yourself. With that in mind…

- Stay calm, be reasonable. If your response to my argument is to tell me to “f*** off”, well, see above. You might have decent and valid points, but no-one’s going to listen to them if you preceded them by swearing at them. If you can’t be reasonable, no-one is going to think your argument is reasonable. If you can’t keep to this basic rule of discourse, your chances of changing minds are very slim.

- Admit when you’re wrong. Cede the ground when a superior argument has been made. If you’re doing this with the smaller points, then you’re stronger for the bigger points. Learn to say “I’m sorry, I take that back”, or “I take your point there”. Otherwise you’re just a can rattling in the wind. No argument will change you, and no-one else will feel that they should change.

In outlining all of this, I’m addressing myself as much as anyone else. I’m just picking up these skills, and I’m sure I will be on the wrong end of a good beating every now and again when I get it wrong. This isn’t an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts either. Right, who wants an argument?

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*This you/I language makes it sound like I’m holding myself up as a fine example of how to do it right. I’m not. It’s just a bugger to write this any other way.

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In which we consider the future.

One of my biggest worries when I started my degree was whether I had left it too late to become a solicitor. I will be 36 when I finish, and 37 when I’ve done either of the vocational qualifications. Would I be too long in the tooth for someone to take on? Would I be doing an expensive degree only to find out the market had no use for me? In the end, I decided that this was something I’do always wanted to do, and even if it didn’t lead to anything, a good quality degree never hurts. Besides, I was doing this to prove to myself that I could. So I got on with it.

Recently, I’ve started looking into this again. I’ve read a few contradictory things, and was a little unsure. The other day, I tweeted this concern, not particularly expecting anything other than other mature students giving their thoughts and experiences.

Imagine my surprise then when Charon QC dropped me a line offering to have a chat about my prospects. In the offline world, the man behind Charon is a respected academic lawyer who co-founded the BPP law school. When talking about legal education and career prospects, he knows of which he speaks.

We spoke for a while about my CV, my studies and my aims. The key things to take away from the conversation were as follows:

1) It’s not too late. A lot of firms value a bit of life experience. My work experience is directly relevant, and that can only help. Entry to the Magic Circle firms might be out of my reach, because they like to get them young, and train them up in their ways. As this was never where my interests were, I’m ok with that. For everyone else, my circuitous route to law might be an advantage.

2) My grade will be all important. This isn’t specific to my situation. Law is apparently the most popular degree in the UK now, and while many of these students won’t be pursuing a legal career, there are only a finite number of jobs. Less than a 2:1, and I can forget it, especially as I can’t point to recent A-level results as proof of academic quality.

3) Put the work in. Obvious, I know, but there are no shortcuts. Be thorough, learn the cases, know the precedents. If you don’t bother, why should a firm employ you above someone who did? Trust me, they have plenty to choose from.

Overall, the talk was massively encouraging, and very helpful. I really appreciate that someone who knows their stuff on this subject took the time to go through things with me. I’m realistic, but I know if I get it right, I can still get into the industry. This simple fact gives me great encouragement.

As it happens, a couple of days later, something else popped up, that gave me cause to question one of the assumptions I’ve made here. I will talk about that one shortly.

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