Life as a family lawyer in Scotland: the truth
Is it really like the TV drama 'The Split'? What do you do if a client cries in front of you? When you go to court do you wear a wig and the fancy gown?
…are just some of the questions I'm routinely asked by family and friends about being a family lawyer.
Wine, cheese and three hour lectures
I knew from early on in my legal studies that I wanted to work with individuals and also appear in court. I narrowed it down to family law, employment or general civil litigation. I studied Law and French at the University of Glasgow and was lucky enough to spend my third year of university in Strasbourg, France. I'll admit, studying law in French and trying to take notes during a three hour lecture on 'Droit International Public' was tricky, but the wine, cheese, breath taking scenery and my group of new international friends made up for it. After completing my LLB, I stayed in Glasgow for the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice, leaving university in 2015.
I completed my traineeship with Aberdein Considine, doing six months in a residential conveyancing seat before moving over to join the family law team for the last 18 months. I stayed with Aberdein Considine for a year after qualifying and did a mix of family law, private client and residential conveyancing.
I joined Brodies LLP in 2018 as a solicitor and was promoted to senior solicitor in 2019. I thoroughly enjoy being a family law solicitor. Don't get me wrong – at times it's challenging, dramatic, emotionally draining, thought provoking, exciting and most importantly, rewarding. But isn't that what makes a job enjoyable? You have to take the ups with the downs. No day is the same.
What you need to be when someone's world has turned upside down
To be a family lawyer, I would say you need certain traits; empathy, excellent listening and communication skills, adaptability and patience. It also helps to be a good negotiator. Often, our clients come to us at one of the worst stages of their life. They are scared, upset, nervous – their world has been turned upside down. They have no certainly or stability. It can be difficult to take instructions from a client in that state, so for me, it's important to move forward at the client's pace and build a trusting relationship with them. You also need to be organised. Being able to prioritise (and re-prioritise) is vital. You can have a day all planned out and then a certain email arrives in your inbox which is urgent and your plans can be scuppered.
We are on the same team
In my view, a good family lawyer shouldn't be aggressive or confrontational. Of course you have to fight your client's corner and advance arguments in their favour, but being hostile or combative will only get you a bad rep in your family law community. Being robust is fine, but I like to think I am seen as approachable and pragmatic. I am always willing to pick up the phone and have a sensible, respectful conversation with the lawyer on the other side. Ultimately, we both want to the same thing – to reach a resolution.
Listen to your head, not your heart
It is also important to remember not to get too close to the client and the situation. When I first started out, I probably took it all a bit personally. Over time, I have realised that doing so isn't healthy or useful. As a lawyer, my role is to take a step back and look at the legal problems without the accompanying emotions – a benefit that my clients don't usually have. Whilst I may have a difficult opposed motion hearing with another lawyer in court, I'll most likely grab a coffee with them before heading back to the office. We're both just doing our job!
Putting on the gown
Generally, the majority of the cases I deal with resolve through negotiation but sometimes raising court proceedings is the only option. This can be for child law cases, financial provision on separation or emergency protective orders. I enjoy court work. It can be stressful with deadlines but I enjoy the buzz of it, particularly when you get to the stage of a proof – an evidential hearing. I take every opportunity I can to appear in court. When I appear, it's a reminder of all the hard work I put in over the years to get to this stage. I wear my court gown with pride. I always want to do a good job when I appear – regardless of whether it's a simple, five second hearing to ask for a four week continuation or it's an opposed motion hearing which could take an hour. An experienced criminal lawyer once said to me "the day you stop getting nervous about appearing in court is the day you should stop appearing. Being nervous shows that you care". As a trainee at the time, it was reassuring to hear this and know that even the "older" lawyers still got nervous. Another high for me is instructing Counsel in Court of Session cases. Their level of knowledge is incredible and watching them on their feet is a privilege.
Court work has seen a number of changes over the last two years, with phone hearings (it was so strange answering the phone to the Sheriff whilst working from my bedroom at the start of lockdown…) and subsequently video (Webex) hearings becoming the new norm following the court closures. From July 2022, substantive hearings, such as proofs and child welfare hearings, have been taking place in person, so that's a big step forward. I've missed appearing in a real court room and seeing other lawyers in real life. I remember my first telephone child welfare hearing in July 2020. No one could see me but I put my gown on anyways. It was an important hearing to me - and the client no doubt - and it didn't feel right doing it in joggers!
The hustle never stops
While clients and the law are my bread and butter, there's more to being a lawyer than just tendering legal advice. Billing, business development, blogging, presenting, mentoring also factor into my day to day. At five years PQE, I'm no longer the most junior of the team and I enjoy having the opportunity to support our trainees and newly qualified lawyers. I can remember well what those days were like! I also thrive on organising and attending various 'BD' events, whether 'one to one' coffees with financial advisers or divorce coaches or bigger 'team to teams'. In some ways it's hard to business develop for family law so it's mostly about being present and raising your profile so that when someone realises they might need family law advice, it's you who pops into their head.
What advice would I give?
My advice to those starting out in their legal career is as follows:
Say 'yes' to everything; take every opportunity.
Ask questions; just try not to ask the same question five times or people may start to lose patience
Don't expect to wake up on your qualification day and know everything. I naively did and I can confirm it definitely wasn't the case.
Treat everyone with respect; whether they are a partner, receptionist, cleaner, secretary, IT support, assistant or director. Everyone has their role to play and you never know when you may need to call in a favour!
Keep an open mind about your future career path. You don't have to have it all figured out – what's for you won't go by you.
Kate's LinkedIn profile can be found here and her Brodies' website profile here.
By Kate Bradbury
Senior Solicitor at Brodies' LLP
Views expressed in guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Scottish Lawyer.