The nights are drawing in, I’m wrapped up by the fireside in Hotshot Mansions, and the tree lights sparkle from the hall. I have two whole weeks off from paid legal employment, and my days now consist of a meander through my home town, some low key present wrapping accompanied by Christmas tunes, and a session in the local pub with some old school friends in the evening.
In amongst all of this I have noticed the expansion of a familial phenomenon.
Christmas is, as we’re often told by advertisers, a time for families to get together and enjoy each other’s company. What many of them don’t mention (but which my law school ethics teacher did) is that when lawyers spend time with their family it is only a matter of time before uncle Jimmy mentions “suing that bastard after that accident I had” or cousin Timmy mentions he’s being “evicted by my tight landlord”. Both of these lead to encouraging smiles and a “would you mind taking a look at this?”
In fact, I’ve only attended two family get togethers this year and already I’ve picked up three “new instructions” – that’s three more than I managed in an entire two years in private practice with its merry-go-round of business development shindigs.
These sorts of familial instructions come with their own baggage of issues (much like the family itself when they descend on Christmas Eve, I suppose). Here are a few I’ve observed so far, from the practical to the boring, ethical and technical.
1. I’m sorry, Auntie, but you don’t actually have a case
Yes Auntie Mo, it is terrible that Mavis from number 35 said that about you, and that terrible things have been implied about your fruitcake in the parish magazine, and I know the newspapers have been talking about how London is the libel capital of the world but that doesn’t mean you can sue her “for every penny she’s got”.
I think these situations are a little less harmless than their professional equivalent. It’s much easier to convince a septuagenarian relative that their understanding of the law is, shall we say, limited, than it is to convince legal counsel at a FTSE 100 company that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Auntie Mo is more likely to back down in these situations, but you should be prepared (after the fifth or sixth glass of sherry) for her to walk past you again and mutter “honestly, five years a law school and he can’t even sue a little old lady…” and then later “so, Hotshot, how come you’re not married yet” – although the latter is not really relevant to this post…
2. I know nothing about this
As I may have mentioned above, there is no suggestion that my family members are jurists on a level with Sir Edward Coke, David Hume or Justinian, but there is a significant suggestion that my legal expertise is somewhat limited. I like to think that I have a ready grasp of the key principles of contract and commercial law, a deeper understanding of intellectual property law, and a rapidly fading memory of some of the finer points of everything else covered in a four year LLB. One of my biggest problems in this area is the fact that I am technically qualified to practice only Scots law, and that while I trained with an English law firm and now work almost exclusively under English law, I haven’t got round to acquiring dual qualification (mainly due to a reluctance to devote much time to studying English property law and “equity” (eh?) in any great detail).
This is completely lost on my family. I think in general they believe that the existence of a separate Scottish jurisdiction is an esotericism of lawyers, created to provide an easy excuse to get out of helping family members resolve their (often petty) legal problems. I haven’t raised this with Alec Salmond yet, but I’m sure it could provide an entire suite of pro-independence posters and materials.
As a result of both of these limitations on my professional expertise, I am not best placed to advise on small claims procedure in the County Courts, or the intricacies of English landlord and tenant law (frankly I still can’t get over this bizarre freehold/leasehold thing that goes on down here).
3. Are you being honest with me?
Now this is an issue in private practice too. The client always believes that they are right, and in their mind, only goes to a lawyer for a high-level validation of their strongly held belief. However, the smaller and more personal the claim, the more the righteous indignation is magnified, so by the time uncle Dave has had his eighth pint of bitter, he is blaming all the ills of society on the “stupid bastard” that reversed into him in the Waitrose car park eight years ago. This will include such claims as: “he admitted it was completely his fault”; “yes there were about a dozen witnesses”; “he’d clearly had a couple”; and “I think he might have abducted the woman in the passenger seat”.
At this point, Dave is convinced that with a sprinkle of legal wordsmithery, provided by his “favourite nephew”, he will rise unchallenged through the County Courts, claim enough compensation to retire on, and emerge as a champion of the Daily Mail’s next campaign to end the grubby reality of Broken Britain through the medium of small claims car parking disputes.
The fact that it was Dave who may have had a couple, that it was he who admitted liability, and that his long-suffering wife Sybil was in the car largely against her wishes, doesn’t even cross his mind.
4. Professional Ethics
Professional ethics wasn’t discussed much on my journey through law school. The class was (hilariously) optional, as if to play up to all those jokes about lawyers not having any, and seemed generally designed to scare us off ever even sneezing without prior written approval from the firm’s senior partner, money-laundering compliance partner and law society liaison officer. As a result, I have long been imbued with a fear of even certifying copies of my friend’s passports in case I end up being extradited to Singapore to have my hands cut off. The idea then of going behind by employer’s back and ‘dabbling’ in a world of law that has so far evaded my grasp fills me with dread. As a lawyer, I am pre-disposed to frame all my advice, and social conversational gambits with a plethora of disclaimers, and this does not go down well over mince pies and champagne. My uncle’s response to my claim that he couldn’t possibly pay me for my help (not advice) as this would make it look like I was holding myself out as some sort of expert was “excellent, so you’ll represent me for free then?”.
Frankly, my Christmas holiday so far has left me in a state of constant anxiety, and each day ends with me rocking to sleep clutching my practising certificate to my chest and waiting from a knock at the door from the Law Society of Scotland. And that’s before I’ve even provided the wording for a short letter before action.
5. This is supposed to be my holiday
Finally, I saved up my holiday entitlement for the year so that I could enjoy a romantic Christmas by the fireside. I love this time of year and I consistently see my home town through rose-tinted and snow-blanched glasses even though the reality is more blood-spattered and vomit-blanched glass. This was my time to forget about the trials and tribulations of work and the legal profession (aside from a quick cease and desist letter on behalf of The Santa Claus Group). As a result, I become a little bit grouchy when faced with the prospect of boning up on the intricacies of English landlord and tenant law or the small claims procedure of the County Courts.
I don’t spend my time on the pre-Christmas social scene asking my uncle Frederick to pull out my teeth, or my cousin Hermione to take a look at my sick kittens, so why should I be at the beck and call of a world of convoluted legal issues that have arisen amongst my family members in the last few years?
Names have been changed, and claims grossly exaggerated to protect the innocent (i.e. me) and for once all photos (apart from the title picture are mine).