To coincide with Dorset Women's Week and to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, we asked two of our female solicitors who are also Partners of the firm to give us an insight into their careers.
What advice would they give to those considering a career in law?
What's it really like to work for Coles Miller?
Find out more about what Conveyancing Solicitor Ruth Elkins and Medical Negligence Solicitor Lydia Barnett had to say...
1. What are your top tips for those considering a career in law?
Ruth Elkins - As with anything in life you have to do the best you can at everything you try. You will need to be determined and methodical in your approach.
There are many career paths into the profession these days so consider all of them and speak to people within the profession already so that you start on the path that best suits you as an individual.
Remember that when you start your journey to becoming a professional in law you may not always end up where you think you want to be at the beginning so keep an open mind and know yourself. Your best selling feature is knowing your own strengths and how to sell them to others.
Be prepared for knock backs and to diversify into areas of law you may not think you will like and lastly, get as much experience as you can along the way – even if some of that is unpaid shadowing or work experience in a legal practice.
Lydia Barnett - Attend university legal department open days as well as legal careers conventions, in order to obtain as much information as you can about a career in law; often there are lectures by barristers and solicitors to give you a better insight.
Carry out research and find out about different areas of law and different avenues that can be taken - for example, a solicitor, barrister or legal executive - and whether you would prefer to study full time or carry out your studies whilst you work.
It is helpful to compare the length of time it will take to qualify and the financial implications of each avenue. Also different types of firms in different regions will all have different cultures and demands.
Undertake work experience in law firms and barristers' chambers. Not only will this give you a better insight of the area of law and avenue you may wish to take but the experience will make you more attractive to future employers.
Practice interview techniques and seek advice from other law students and trainees as to what to expect in pursuing your studies and a career in law.
2. What skills and strengths do you need to be a good solicitor?
RE - It depends on the area of law that you practice within. The skills required to make a good litigator may be very different from those required to make a good private client solicitor dealing with grief and loss following death.
Generally though there are some key characteristics that appear across the board. You need to be methodical and organised.
You need to be prepared to listen and assess situations and to offer guidance and advice based on the law. You will need to have an open mind and the ability to communicate with others clearly. Patience is an absolute must in this profession as - no matter in which area you work - this will be tested at times.
LB - You will need a good academic background; good grades are required to go into law. You will also need to be highly motivated and driven; it can take many years to qualify and law can often be fast paced.
Resilience is key; you need to build up a ‘thick’ skin, as there will be fierce competition and rejection along the way in relation to training contracts and jobs. You may also encounter more challenging clients.
You will need attention to detail and good analytical skills combined with the ability to formulate a good argument. You must be able to work well within your team but also on your own.
Leadership skills are important, particularly if you want to progress to Head of Department or Partner. Good communication and ‘people’ skills are important; you will be acting for members of the public, who quite often are in difficult situations.
Client care is vital if you want to offer a good service. Workloads are often high and you will need to learn how to prioritise and work efficiently in order to meet deadlines. Most importantly, enjoy what you do!
3. What made you specialise in your particular area of law?
RE - As a person my own strengths are my ability to put people at ease and good communication skills. I am generally a very positive and proactive person and I love to find the positives in others around me.
I have also learned to work well under pressure and am quick to be able to assess and prioritise matters without overlooking important details. Conveyancing allows me to use all of these skills to their best.
Often the thought of going to see a solicitor can be quite daunting but I am quick to put people at their ease so that they can ask me any questions and know they will get a clear considered response.
With conveyancing the challenges often involve solving complex legal title issues which need clear explanation and guidance as to the options available to clients.
Communication is key throughout a conveyancing matter. The biggest number of complaints within the profession generally is a lack of communication.
I believe that my own working practices ensure that clients and estate agents are all kept informed of progress throughout any conveyancing matter.
Using a case management system enables me to chase anything that is outstanding without having to be reminded in any particular case by a client or agent and this is really useful when juggling over 100 transactions at any given time.
There are also many useful tools available these days to help identify potential issues for clients and to ensure that these are resolved in a timely manner and that the clients understand what is happening and can make informed decisions.
Positivity comes at various stages of a conveyancing transaction...from being given initial instructions by a client, identifying any issues, relaying these to the clients, finding solutions that work for everyone involved right through to the end of a matter when a client has achieved their goals of either moving or remortgaging. Knowing that you helped them to reach that new chapter makes this a very rewarding area of work.
LB - I specialise in clinical negligence because I find the medical side of the work I do fascinating and I am gaining medical knowledge. The cases are very involved, technical and challenging - which I enjoy.
No two cases are the same and I enjoy drafting technical documents and constructing compelling legal arguments on the basis of expert medical evidence.
Importantly, I enjoy making a difference to clients’ lives; particularly if they have serious injuries and require support in order to live as normal a life as possible in the future. Winning a five-year case definitely makes me feel it was all worth it and gives you a real sense of achievement!
4. Is it possible to achieve a healthy work/life balance as a solicitor?
RE - Yes it is but it takes an awful lot of work to achieve it and the responsibility is firmly with you to ensure that you put this balance in place and stick to it because nobody else will do it for you!
There are countless occasions where the volumes of work coming in make it impossible to complete everything in a working day.
As a newcomer in the profession it takes a lot longer to complete tasks thoroughly and you may need to also consult with others to check your work which can further delay you. You will also need to actively market your services and attend networking events to ensure people know who you are and what you can help them with.
As you progress through your career your target adjusts usually upwards and the volume of work that you are expected to manage gradually increases. You quickly have to learn to work smarter whilst still doing the marketing and networking and possibly taking on other administrative tasks.
As a partner, not only are you expected to reach extremely high targets you may also be managing teams of individuals around you, ensuring that the office is functioning most efficiently and that any changes you introduce are effective.
You may also be required to oversee case management systems and to ensure that any changes to the law are relayed to the staff. Often any such changes also mean changes to working practices or advice and so again you may be responsible for far more than just the basic role. Networking and marketing will also feature more heavily at this level.
All of this can lead to overtime being necessary which eats into life outside of the office. You do have to be realistic as to what you can manage and do not be afraid to say “no” if you have reached your capacity. At the end of the day a client would much rather you be honest with them and decline the work than take it on and struggle to deal with the matter thoroughly and in a timely manner.
LB - It is absolutely possible to achieve a healthy work/life balance as a solicitor. This will depend on the type of firm you work for and in what region.
For example, if you work for an international or commercial firm in London there might well be a greater pressure to work longer hours and stay later. However, in smaller and medium regional type firms (like Coles Miler) there is no real expectation to work very long hours; particularly if you work efficiently during the day.
There is plenty of time for hobbies, the gym and having a social life after work.
5. What made you choose Coles Miller?
RE - When I finished my business and law degree I knew I wanted to practice in law but had absolutely no idea what area of law I wanted to specialise in.
With a young son to support at home I decided that I needed to start working in a legal practice to see what it was like before investing any more time and money into the career choice.
Coles Miller were advertising for a paralegal role within their conveyancing department. I had no clue what that was at the time so had to look up the term 'conveyancing' before I sent in my cv to see if they would consider me with no legal experience at all and only my degree to demonstrate my ability to learn.
Fortunately for me I was able to demonstrate a strength of character (having completed my degree in two years whilst working nights at a local supermarket and still managing my family responsibilities) that was obviously enough for the partners to offer me a position.
I actually knew very little about the firm itself but for the fact that it was local to my home and covered a huge range of legal specialities which I felt would give me the opportunity that I needed to make a decision as to whether I was going to pursue this as a career.
Here I am nearly 21 years later - full credit to Coles Miller as a practice for encouraging and supporting me throughout my progression through the firm and for offering me the opportunity to reach my career goals.
I can say that they are exceptionally good at looking after their staff here and for making the team feel like part of a very large family unit.
LB - I chose to work at Coles Miller as it is a well-known and respected firm locally and has a friendly team of staff, who enjoy meeting to socialise after work.
Coles Miller strongly supports trainees and their career development, a number of partners have worked at the firm for more than 12 years and started as paralegals and trainees. I have been here since 2004 and have progressed from paralegal to partner in that time. I look forward to many more years working at Coles Miller!