Key Transferable Skills

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (something I hate to do when it’s not billable, but – sigh – needs must) about what I would do with my life if I was forced to abandon the bar as a result of the legal aid cuts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not there yet – it cost me £30k, three years and a nearly nervous breakdown to get here after all – and I love it to bits – but I think many of us are wondering if we will still be doing this in 5 years time – so what else can we poor misfits turn our hands to?

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They tell you at bar school not to worry if you don’t make it to practise at the bar, that being a qualified barrister will equip you with numerous ‘key transferable skills’ useful in some ‘other’ life. Leaving aside for one moment the obvious self-serving nature of such a remark coming from an industry which charges outrageously over-inflated fees to far more students than can ever hope to succeed, what are my key skills and to where do they transfer on civvy street?

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For one thing I’m a terrible people manager. I tried it once and oscillated from nice-but-ignored-by-cheerful-subordinates to shouty-and-ignored-by-sullen-subordinates. Far better to manage oneself, to be a self sufficient unit of one. Delegate nothing: control everything. So team work and staff management is out then.

I don’t like to be managed much either. I manage my own time, slope off early when I feel like it, skip lunch, work late choose the shape of my own day to fit my needs. I feel the weight of responsibility to get the work done on time and to a high standard but I achieve it by defining my own working pattern. Not  good at clocking on and off then. But a finisher, not a putter-off.

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Bureaucracy and administration are anathema to us. So no local authorities or bodies heavily regulated by statutory form filling or budgetary constraint thank you very much.

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Ah yes – I am fierce and determined and vocal on behalf of my clients. A most irritating work colleague no doubt who everyone wishes would shut up. If forced into an office environment I would almost certainly within weeks be campaigning for better coffee machines or about the inconvenient location of the water dispenser, a trade union rep or general agitator.

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But what about that ability and willingness to take on the task no matter how repellant the client or the cause is? That moral abdication that lawyers are so famed for? That MUST equip me for something surely? Perhaps I would be good in a call centre barking self righteously and without sympathy at the customer about some point of contention, a fearless advocate of my employer’s rigid and incomprehensible company policy – a sort of articulate and utterly impenetrable ‘computer says no’ lady. But I fear that call centre staff do not universally make good advocates and perhaps the reverse is also true (I do not think I can add anything further to my submissions on behalf of [insert name of corporate entity here] your customership). Or else as a bailiff, in brave and dogged pursuit of funds rightfully owing (too puny and sluggish I fear and frankly too chicken).

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What’s more I don’t think of myself as amoral, I think many of us (geeklawyer excepted obviously) are passionate  and profoundly moral. About justice and the justice system we are a part of. Yes it’s that old hat you put on your OLPAS form about wanting to help alleviate injustice, to give something back, give a voice to the silenced etc etc. But it’s true and it is that (fortified by the cab rank rule) which enables us to ignore the apparent repugnance of a particular client or get past the moral ‘wrongness’ of a particularly nasty argument we are asked to make – the belief in the system and the small part played in a mechanism for overall good (even if sometimes we feel that the system is not in perfect working order). And it’s hard to get passionate about your profit driven, target crazed boss (although getting passionate with them is one way to the top so I’m told).

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In fact we are unique in being used to having a frequent outlet to vent our opinions (a mark of a good advocate is that he identifies with the client whilst being able to also identify the weaknesses in his position) or at least an opinion, yet we can also hide behind the cloak of our instructions or pass the buck of responsibility to the judge or the client. It is liberating  to say unpleasant things without consequence. We get to spout off a lot but it is always someone else who takes responsibility for our words – my client or yours (unless you say something way off mark and get sacked, struck off, imprisoned etc!). Is this therapeutic; does this make us well adjusted or would we cease to function in a socially acceptable way if relieved of this release valve for all our hot air? Perhaps we are all just would be manic or angry people, kept normal by a daily release of spleen through advocacy?

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I’ve heard barristers often described as dysfunctional or autistic – a tag which is scientifically inaccurate (and probably insulting to autistic people) but which is an indicator I think of the fact that we are a group of brainiacs with social deficiencies and low emotional intelligence or empathy. I think the extremes are less apparent for family lawyers, if you don’t have some degree of emotional intelligence you can’t be an effective advocate for often emotional issues, but the general point is a good one. We work anti-social hours, neglect our families, have to close off or heavily manage our own emotions in order to remain objective enough to do a good job for the client, and we irritate the hell out of our partners and families by quoting the law, making points of principal or pointing out inconsistencies in our spouses arguments during tiffs. We correct the spelling and grammar mistakes on the anniversary card from our spouses for chrissakes. We are ornery and stubborn and pernickety and generally impossible to live with. We also number rather too many alcoholics, drug addicts and philanderers to be entirely wholesome, but I’m not admitting to any such vices myself. However, that notwithstanding if I’m honest – I wouldn’t employ me. And I wouldn’t marry me either.

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People skills. That’s it. We have people skills. We soothe and manipulate (sorry gently guide) our clients towards a sensible path, we advise them in a way that is not too hard emotionally to manage. We sympathise with their upset and where necessary sit firmly upon them to minimise the inevitable heartache which will be caused by continuing adherence to a ridiculous position that is doomed to failure. We gently probe with a mix of direct questions and insignificant chit chat to tease out the information we need to make our case. Perhaps an interrogator for MI5? Or a relate counsellor (did I suggest that in the same breath?). Perhaps not, I think too often we would see the writing on the wall and gush: You (to the wife): he’s a bastard, he won’t change. Move on. You (to the husband): you idiot. you really messed it up. What did you expect? Released from the bind of one sole client and opposing positions I might just tell it to them rather too straight.

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And as I look back over this list of our most compelling characteristics as a profession I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that there are only two alternative choices of career should push finally come to shove: taxi driver or judge. Perhaps for everybody’s sake I should stay where I am.

2 thoughts on “Key Transferable Skills

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  2. Oh, boy, I feel so not alone now. I did the same cataloging of skills and came up just as deficient for other employment. Add to that non-lawyer interviewers cannot understand why we might ever want not to be lawyers. Hmm, let me count the ways and add the joys of self-employment to that list. Every so often I tell the wife that I want to quit and get a job at a local video store. She looks at me with a completely deadpan look and then says you know you really do not want to do that. She is right. Not that I am going to tell her that and I doubt she will ever take down this comment. I would die of boredom doing just about anything else. But we can dream, can’t we?

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