Life with the lawyers

What's a career in the legal profession really like? Grania Langdon- Down investigates
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The Independent Online
Every year, thousands of graduates with ideals of righting wrongs and fighting for justice choose the high cost, hard graft and tough competition involved in joining the ranks of the legal profession.

But does the job live up to expectations or is the reality of life among the 70,000 solicitors and 10,500 barristers practising in England and Wales a different story?

Next week's Graduate Law Fair at the Barbican in London, launched by The Lawyer newspaper and sponsored by The Independent, aims to take some of the confusion and anxiety out of planning a legal career.

Here, three solicitors and two barristers give a flavour of life as a lawyer.

Louise Brooks, 33, is one of the newest tenants at Cloisters Chambers in London where she specialises in crime, employment and personal injury cases.

No week is really like another. But she described one which began with a two-day trial in a Kent youth court defending a 13 year-old on sexual assault charges.

On Wednesday she appeared for a respondent she had never met in an unfair dismissal case at an industrial tribunal in Bedford. Thursday and Friday saw her at the start of a three-day industrial tribunal in London appearing for the applicant in a sex discrimination case.

She works most Sundays and many evenings, sometimes all night if she receives a complicated, last-minute brief.

Barristers working in independent practice are self-employed, with fees negotiated by the clerk of the chambers.

"Payment is unpredictable. We each have a file hanging in a cupboard and sometimes you get a wonderful surprise and there are several cheques and other times the cupboard is literally bare."

Rosa Dean, 27, has been a tenant at the Midlands and Oxford Circuit chambers of James Hunt QC in London since she qualified two years ago.

She specialises in criminal and family work. During a recent week she worked on Sunday preparing for cases the next day. On Monday, she left her Hackney home for Northampton to prosecute in four appeals. She finished in court at 4.15 and went to her chamber's Northampton annexe to catch up on paperwork faxed through to her.

On Tuesday, she want to Leicester for a family case. She returned to London after lunch but had to work until midnight preparing for a last- minute trial in Luton the next day but it never got on. She hung about until released and then returned to chambers.

On Thursday, she worked on urgent advice in chambers, involving a gang fight in Cambridgeshire. On Friday, she was back in Luton for five sentence hearings, prosecuting in three and defending in two.

"I finished court at 5.45pm and went home in a had mood. I was back in chambers on Sunday to prepare for Monday's trial.

"But the job is wonderful - better than I imagined. It is very hard work but it is always stimulating and there is something new every day," she said.

Maria Sciberra, 27, qualified in 1992 and works for the London criminal practice TV Edwards, where she did her articles.

She described one week: on Monday, she was at the City of London magistrates' court for an application hearing and in the afternoon saw a client in her office in Bow, east London about an assault charge.

On Tuesday, she got up at 6am to go to Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in Middlesex to see two youths. In the afternoon she saw a client in the office to tell him he was not going to be charged in a murder inquiry.

On Wednesday, she was at Barking magistrates' court taking on someone else's case at the last minute. Later, she was on call as duty solicitor for the East End police stations. The next day, she was at Stratford Court all day as duty solicitor.

On Friday, she was at Camberwell magistrates' court for one of the youths she had seen at Feltham for a bail application. The afternoon was kept for paperwork.

On Saturday, Ms Sciberra was on 24-hour call as duty solicitor for the Thames area, contactable by pager.

She "stumbled" into the law after running a market stall for a year and acting as temporary court clerk to a criminal solicitor.

"I don't think I knew that much about what I was coming in to. It can be depressing and frustrating but also very funny. There are a lot of social problems you cannot avoid in an area like this but as you get more experienced you learn to walk away from it at the end of the day," she said.

Nick Rock, 27, qualified as a solicitor in 1994. He did his articles and now works as a litigator for the international corporate law firm Freshfields at its City of London headquarters.

He is the senior manager on a big insurance insolvency case which comes to trial in January, so is working 12-hour days and weekends. One recent week began with a pre-trial hearing.

The rest of the week was a constant stream of meetings with counsel and experts drafting their reports. Friday was a "frantic" day bundling documents and handing them over to the other side.

He joined Freshfields because it offered the chance to travel - he spent six months of his articles in the New York office - and paid well.

"I think the hours have been longer than I expected. Like any job, there are good and bad days but overall I enjoy what I do," he said.

David Bacon, 41, has worked in the provinces since he qualified as a solicitor in 1980. For the past six years he has been a partner in the Northampton firm Borneo Martell, which he joined in 1985.

He is in the office by 8am, dealing with the post and diary. One recent week started with a medical negligence case hearing. In the afternoon, he drove to the scene of a car accident with his client to take instructions and photographs.

On Tuesday, along with preparing a criminal injuries claim in a cerebral palsy case, he saw two clients, one involving a personal injury claim.

Wednesday was office-based. Thursday was spent in Nottingham attending a personal injury conference. Friday involved more paperwork plus an interview with a new client over a building dispute.

"The pluses of working in the provinces include a slightly easier lifestyle, without the headaches of commuting.

"Looking at the work overall, I now think of myself more as a manager than a lawyer, given the tremendous increase in regulations and form filling. It isn't what I joined the profession to be and I find that rather disappointing," he saidn

The Graduate Law Fair is on November 6 and 7 at The Red Hall, Barbican Exhibition Centre, London EC2 8DS. For free tickets, students should contact their Careers Advisory Service, the Faculty of Law or the ticket hotline on 0171-292 3724.

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