Practice areas such as medical negligence, family and personal injury have traditionally been bypassed by trainee solicitors for their business-oriented counterparts. This is, perhaps, unsurprising considering the emphasis placed on corporate and finance modules on courses such as the LPC. But at Irwin Mitchell it’s a different story. The market-leading national firm offers a two-year personal legal services (PLS) stream training contract which allows aspiring lawyers to focus their training on just that: personal-focused practice areas which interest them. The programme is comprised of three four-month seats, followed by a year-long seat in the department in which the trainee wishes to qualify.
‘When I did my GDL I was very much intending to go down the corporate/commercial route’ says Lewis Ayre, a second year trainee on the PLS stream, currently sitting in Irwin Mitchell’s serious injury department. ‘It’s certainly the most heavily advertised practice area and it was very difficult to look into anything else’. But a series of vacation schemes and feedback from friends in the industry quickly convinced Lewis that the corporate route wasn’t for him.
A paralegal job in London’s West End working on industrial accident and disease matters introduced Lewis to personal legal services. ‘I connected more closely with having client-facing work and having more in-depth involvement on matters, as well as feeling as though I was actually helping someone’, he explains. It was this experience which led him to apply for a job as a paralegal, and subsequently a training contract, at Irwin Mitchell.
Chani Dhaliwal, partner in Irwin Mitchell’s serious injury group, has a similar story. ‘I actually didn’t know which area of law I wanted to go into. When I started my training contract in 2008 at Irwin Mitchell I had the typical feeling of wanting to be a corporate or commercial lawyer’. It was by chance that Chani ended up doing his first seat in serious injury. ‘It was the one seat that I thought I wasn’t going to do; I had no idea about the work I was going to be doing. But once I was exposed to it, I found it so rewarding working with seriously injured individuals and making a real difference to their lives through litigation’. Even so, Chani was still convinced that his future lay in corporate law.
A stint in the commercial property and corporate department changed his mind. ‘It just wasn’t for me. There were some really important transactions going on but what I quickly realised was that I enjoyed the contentious element of the work’. At the end of his first year, there was no question that Chani would return to the serious injury department to complete his final seat. It was clearly a good decision as he has been there ever since.
An interesting case I worked on
'I represented an individual who was working on a construction site as a labourer and fell from height. He suffered a complete spinal cord injury so he was paralysed from the waist down. He became a permanent wheelchair user and doctors told him that he would not be able to walk again. We established liability early and obtained significant interim payments to fund rehabilitation, getting an adapted property and meet the client’s equipment needs. He had a lot of therapy, including a physiotherapist, occupational therapist and dietitian. 12 months passed and he was making little progress in accepting his disability; despite what everyone was telling him, he still thought that he would walk again. That was a real challenge for everybody because they knew that his injuries were significant and that there was never going to be movement in his legs again. We knew that we needed another solution. What we managed to do was get a significant interim payment to buy an exoskeleton. Exoskeletons are like robotic suits which were originally designed for the army because they enable soldiers to carry heavier loads. This was the first case where someone with a spinal cord injury obtained an interim payment to purchase an exoskeleton so it was very innovative, and still is. My client was able to walk when wearing the exoskeleton and the impact on his life was just amazing. It improved his psychological state, he started to accept his disability and was getting out and about in the community and starting to enjoy life again. He said ‘I feel like a normal person again and my confidence has returned. I can’t put in words what it feels like to be at eye level with other individuals again’. It was great to see how technology interacts with the law and how it can make a difference to someone’s life.'
For Lewis, the benefits of deciding to pursue a particular type of law early on are manifold. High levels of responsibility, more exposure to matters and opportunities to undertake complex work are the norm for trainees in the PLS stream. ‘I’m trusted within the team to prepare court documents, statements, instructions, routine correspondence, liaise with clients directly and I assist more senior fee earners with complex, multi-million pound claims’.
Any trainee undertaking a typical six-month seat will be familiar with the frustration of joining a department mid-trial or at the end of a transaction and finding themselves unable to follow a matter the whole way through. The PLS training contract overcomes this hindrance thanks to the 12-month qualification seat, which ensures that trainees have enough time to really get their teeth into interesting matters. Lewis elaborates: ‘By the time I qualify, I’ll have experience of running my own caseload. I’ll have experience at all stages of the claims process, from initial client interview right up to trial and post-settlement matters’.
An interesting case I am working on
'In an ongoing matter, we act for a client who suffered multiple injuries in a microlight plane crash. The plane was piloted by the client’s friend who had performed a negligent manoeuvre in the air and caused the microlight to stall. They were unable to recover the aircraft to where it should have been and so it crashed. It then transpired that the friend had not properly insured himself, which was shocking to our client who had been out with him a number of times. Because there was no insurance, we brought a claim against the friend directly. He repeatedly refused to engage in the litigation process and we secured judgment against him at a trial that he did not attend. He then suddenly ceased all communication and we subsequently learnt that he had absconded to Spain. We reinforced the judgment against the property we knew he had in the UK and just as we’d made the application to court to do this, we found out that he had transferred all his assets in the UK into his wife’s name. It has very much been a game of cat and mouse, involving investigators and other departments in the firm, such as the commercial litigation and insolvency team who have advised on things like freezing injunctions and fraudulent conveyances. The case continues and we’re doing everything we can to bring the defendant to account.'
For Chani, the benefits of specialising early become clear once trainees qualify. Recruits have typically been undertaking NQ-level work for about six months before qualification and so they can hit the ground running once they obtain that coveted solicitor title. What’s more, they have proven that they are committed to their chosen practice area. ‘The candidates that we’re getting have already tested their options and they’ve already had exposure to personal injury or other fields within PLS. They are dedicated to this area of law – this is what they want to do’.
But are there any downsides to committing oneself to a specific type of law at such an early stage? ‘I wouldn’t call it a downside, but what could be a disadvantage is that having an exposure to different areas of law is really helpful, even in personal injury litigation. Having contacts in different parts of the business is useful’, says Chani.
In reality, however, PLS trainees will frequently find instances where their work overlaps with other teams within the business. Irwin Mitchell is focused on ‘client sharing’ – putting the client at the heart of everything they do and thinking about the legal services that a client may require. ‘More often than not, a client who instructs us will also want other legal services. They might need property law advice because they are buying houses and adapting them or they may have obtained a multi-million pound compensation settlement and so they need advice from our private wealth services team’, adds Chani.
Rather than specialising early, Lewis views the PLS stream more as committing to an ‘umbrella’ of a type of law, which still gives trainees a wide range of options when it comes to choosing where to qualify. ‘I think if you’re truly unsure of what you want to do it’s probably not the wisest idea, but I still don’t think it ties you to a particular route. Especially in a firm like Irwin Mitchell which has such a broad range of practice areas’.
It goes without saying that practical work experience will be invaluable for those looking to apply for a PLS stream training contract. But Lewis stresses that this does not necessarily have to be in the exact area of law applicants want to go into. In fact, any related experience speaks volumes: ‘skills such as practical case handling, drafting and experience with vulnerable clients are all helpful things to talk about at interview’.
Chani agrees. Whilst gaining some exposure or knowledge of an area of law will set you apart from other candidates, non-legal work experience should not be discounted. ‘You shouldn’t disregard things like working in Tesco during law school or university, because it’s client-facing and you’re working as part of a team. It also shows how you can manage a challenging degree with work commitments’.
Applications for 2021 training contracts at Irwin Mitchell are now open. Click here to apply.