The subject of this week’s interview is private practice solicitor, Tony McDonach.
Tony bounced back from his original training contract offer being withdrawn to take a more unconventional route to qualify as a solicitor.
Tony gives a candid interview about his life as a solicitor and offers some valuable advice for anyone thinking of pursuing a career as a solicitor.
1. Why did you decide you wanted to be a solicitor?
I like the idea of being a professional. Having a job that is instantly recognisable for the outside world and which has stood the test of time as opposed to one which might disappear with new technology. I’m naturally quite conservative and the tradition and respectability (and the money!) all appeal to the snob in me.
2. What academic route did you take to qualify as a solicitor? Would you do it differently if you had your time again?
I did a straightforward law degree followed directly by the Law Society Finals. At that stage, I had already secured a training contract although that offer was subsequently withdrawn. If I had my time over I would not study Law, which I did not (and do not) find particularly interesting academically. I would study a non-vocational degree such as English or even a Language.
3. How did you find it securing a training contract/articles?
Initially, very easy. I had worked at a firm during a gap year after A-levels as their court clerk and followed this up with holiday work when at University. They then offered me a training contract to start in September 1994. However, when I was at Law School I received a letter from them informing me that due to financial difficulties they were unable to take me or any other trainee on.
To some extent, this was almost a welcome development in that from the time I had accepted my University place I hadn’t really considered my options or what I wanted to do.
However, when I started to apply for a training contract (in the Summer of 1993 for a position starting in September 1994) the competition was fierce and I did not get a place. (I didn’t help myself by limiting my applications to shipping firms in London but I was pretty sure that was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to live).
In the end, I took what was intended to be a stop-gap job in a shipping insurance adjusters’ firm. I ended up staying 7 years and probably would still be there if I hadn’t received a letter from the Law Society informing me that if I did not obtain a training contract within 7 years of obtaining my law school exams, they would lapse. That company was at that stage going through a takeover.
Spurred by this letter I spoke to my employers and it was arranged that following the takeover I would begin an in-house training contract in the company’s legal department. I was therefore set to qualify as an in-house solicitor. However, for my final seat, I was sent out on secondment to a private practice firm and upon qualification, I joined that firm.
4. What sort of firm did you do your training contract/articles with?
As above, mainly in-house at an insurance adjusting company with the final 6 months in private practice.
5. What sort of law did you practise after qualifying as a solicitor?
Shipping litigation, with an emphasis on shipping related personal injury.
6. What legal jobs have you had since qualifying?
Only my current job.
7. What’s the best thing about being a solicitor for you?
Being a relative expert in my field. Being able to sort out someone else’s problems when very few other people can do this.
8. What’s the worst thing about being a solicitor for you?
The financial grind from daily timesheets, unrealistic financial targets and the idea that your worth is measured almost purely in how much money you can make for the firm.
9. Would you consider you are in a career for life or do you think you might want to try something different at some stage? If so, what?
I don’t think I’m necessarily in a career for life. I like to think that my “legal career” is now banked; that I could now try something else and, if necessary come back to the law if the other job didn’t work out. Whether market conditions ever allowed me to do this who knows? I’ve no current plans for an alternative job beyond the romantic and unlikely ones of novelist or olive farmer in Tuscany. I would say that because I’ve already had an earlier career in insurance I suspect I have a bit more employment flexibility than someone who has spent their whole working life in the Law.
10. What advice would you give to law students and trainee solicitors today?
If you intend to go into private practice you should realize what sort of person you are and understand what you want from the deal. If you are motivated by money and status and see yourself as a future partner in a firm you must embrace the “business” aspect of the job immediately and commit a lot of your energy to your work. If you don’t do this, perhaps because you’re unsure what you want from work at the start, then I think it is very difficult to change your working culture some years down the line. An alternative career doing interesting work, mixing with intelligent colleagues and having a good work/life balance is open to you, but I think it is very difficult to have all this with partnership and the financial rewards that brings as well. This is particularly the case if/when you begin a family. I think it is perhaps easier to make the adjustment the other way, say to ease back on the work side after a few years of frenzied billing, although if you’ve never previously cultivated any sort of private life and friendships, there may not be any alternative to working late every day.
11. Any final words of wisdom/anything else to add?
If the law turns you on then you’ll love a career in it and it will (almost) be its own reward. However, if you’re not among this privileged class of people then be clear in your own mind what you want from your job: ie money or an interesting role. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel almost obligated to pursue a career in the professions to satisfy their family’s expectations of them. It can be a very stressful job so if you’re not doing it for yourself you might not last the course.
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