I am half-way through my first contentious seat with the Agricultural Litigation team in our Bristol office. I have previously been in two non-contentious seats: Transactional Real Estate and Planning and Environment.
Although it is not essential to do a contentious seat during your training contract, there will come a point when you will need to choose whether you want to qualify into a purely litigious department, a non-contentious team or, as Jo Cowan pointed out in her article, a mix of the two. To make an informed choice, it is definitely worth experiencing both sides of the coin. Even for absolutely die-hard non-contentious lawyers, experience of litigation will provide a host of useful skills that are applicable to any seat upon qualification. Additionally, having a working knowledge of the procedure of litigation will ensure you are thinking commercially about the risks of even the most innocuous transaction.
I have compiled a list of the key skills that I have developed during my time in a litigation seat.
As you would expect in litigation, there are immovable court deadlines. To meet these, you need to be organised and manage your files effectively. You need to know what documentation is required, where it needs to be filed, in what format and who it needs to be served on. To prevent costs spiralling for the client, efficiency is vital in producing specific and relevant work without accruing too much time on the clock.
You need to be able to understand, interpret and apply the black letter of the law. This is especially important when reviewing the Civil Procedure Rules which outline and underpin the whole process of litigation. The Agricultural Litigation team covers just about all aspects of litigation including property, planning, partnerships and probate – as long as there is an agricultural twist, and so I have been exposed to a huge variety of work traversing many different areas of the law.
We start the week with a quick round robin session, which consists of everyone giving a summary of what work they have on, their capacity to take on new work and their whereabouts in the week. Without fail, there is someone attending or organising a conference breakfast/networking lunch/marketing dinner/litigation award ceremony/agricultural interpretative dance (Ok, not the last one). For example: Rachel O’Connor, a Senior Associate in the team organised a Sustainable Agriculture Conference which took place this week in Bristol, and Charlotte Razay (my Supervisor and an Associate in the team) hosted a “Women in Rural Practice” meeting last month at a local cider farm. The team also regularly hold revision sessions for students studying for their CAAV exams. So, you can expect to get involved in activities outside of the normal working day including networking and contributing to public events.
Client contact is an integral part of day to day life when working in litigation. During my time with this team, I have attended Court for a Costs and Case Management Conference, I have been at four mediations (with one lasting 13 hours), countless client meetings and co-hosted a conference with Counsel. One of the trainees in this team recently appeared as advocate for a client in the Small Claims Court. As well as face-to-face contact, clients must be kept updated of any progress, delays and costs via email, letter and/or phone, and so your time in a litigation seat will invariably involve drafting many letters. You will learn to vary and adapt your tone depending on the recipient, and the message you want to convey.
The above skills are universally applicable to any department within the firm; however, the fast-paced nature of litigation adds an urgency to developing and honing these skills and encourages you to put them into practice almost every day. Regardless of what practice area you choose to qualify into, a seat in litigation will provide invaluable tools and vital experience for rounding your skill set as a trainee, developing your professional expertise and building your confidence in the office or in the courtroom.