The cautionary tale of a failed legal career, Part 5

A Rake's Progress: V - The Marriage (Public Domain)

Part 5: Against a brick wall

One day whilst sitting at my desk at Firm #2 minding my own business I received an unexpected telephone call. It was from a recruitment agent, asking if I was interested in a move. I don’t know how the agent found me. I liked to imagine that I had been ‘headhunted’, but the reality of course was that the agent was just looking for any vaguely suitable candidate, in order to secure his commission.

The move was to a firm in the next town, a firm I knew, and that I thought was just another typical 'High Street' firm, doing the usual mix of conveyancing, probate, family and civil litigation. The enticement to join them was a higher salary and the rare (in my experience) benefits of BUPA membership and, in particular, a company car. Well, I had to accept.

Also attractive was the fact that I would be the firm’s family law department - the only lawyer there doing family law work. This was a little bit daunting, but also nice as, to an extent, as it would make me my own boss.

Just to be clear here, the move was nothing to do with my being snubbed for partnership. I hadn't been seeking a move, even though perhaps I should have been. Instead, I had been ossified by my usual lack of ambition.

Anyway, the new job at Firm #3 started off well. I recall that in the early years the Senior Partner would often put his head round my door, ask how I was doing and when I said "fine" he would exclaim: "I wish we had more like you!"

However, it soon became apparent that it was not the firm I thought I had joined. In fact it did not even have the same name as the firm I thought I had joined. Rather than being a 'High Street all-rounder' firm, it was primarily a commercially-orientated firm, doing mostly insurance work (i.e. acting for insurance companies, primarily with the aim of reducing the amounts that the companies had to pay out to those money-grabbing claimants).

And in the end that changed everything. Whilst other lawyers at the firm were bringing in vast fee-income thanks to the fact that insurance companies are much happier shelling out to their lawyers than to their customers I, with a large proportion of my caseload being poorly paid legal aid work, could not compete.

Just to explain for the benefit of non-lawyer readers, legal aid pays at an hourly rate set by government. And don't imagine that the rates increase every year, in line with inflation. What a silly idea. No, the rates may remain fixed for years, with the obvious result that the government saves millions effective 'profit' from legal aid work reduces year on year. To give an idea, the hourly rate for legal aid work was typically a third, or even a quarter, of the rate for non-legal aid work.

And sure enough this caused things to start to turn sour. Despite the best efforts of myself and my secretary/assistant to bring in as much fee income as we could, we gradually became the firm's poor relations. As the years past, my prospects at Firm #3 dwindled.

I was also told by a partner that I was not a 'team player'. This was true: for example, I would rarely show my face at the firm's Christmas parties, and other events. On the other hand, as indicated above, the fact that I was not part of a team was something that had attracted me to the firm in the first place...

I should take a moment to talk about my secretary/assistant. She began as my secretary, typing all my dictation, fielding phone calls and generally acting as my 'right arm'. But she was also my friend, and my confidante. And it became clear that she was quite capable of doing much more. So she became my legal assistant, with an (also excellent) replacement taking over secretarial duties. My time at Firm #3 would have been a far worse experience without her.

Anyway, back to my story, and time for another of those visits to my office by a partner. This time it was more brutal: I was told that the firm had decided to close the family law department, and I was being made redundant. The firm had decided that, after all, it actually wanted one less like me.

Being told you're no longer wanted is like a punch in the stomach. The only thing alleviating that pain was my understanding that closing the unprofitable (or not so profitable) family department was part of a restructuring, in preparation for the firm's merger with/takeover by another large commercially-orientated law firm. Indeed, after I left that merger/takeover did take place, although not long after that the new firm opened a new family law department, headed by a 'big name' family lawyer...

There is perhaps a moral to this part of my story, and maybe to other parts too: make sure you are never in the wrong place, at the wrong time! I don’t want to give too much emphasis to this however, as it suggests that I am shifting the blame for my failures away from myself. No, my failure at Firm #3 was ultimately down to me.

Anyway, there I was with little to show for my ten-odd years at Firm #3, save for a small redundancy payment and a modest ex-company car.

Whither now?

I didn't have to wait long for the answer.