I was recently on a train journey, dressed in my ‘normal’ clothes and flicking through a legal mag when a po-faced lady sitting opposite me enquired if I was heading to an interview.
After clarifying that I wasn’t, nor that I was still at university (her next question) I explained that I was in fact a well-seasoned employment solicitor, having been in the job for almost ten years. She didn’t hide her surprise at this news, but her attitude towards me did change. We chatted for the rest of the journey and at our destination she declared that she wished more solicitors were like me. Before I could find out what she meant by this, she was gone.
I think and hope that she meant I am a normal human with some communication skills. That’s not to say that lawyers aren’t usually human(!) or indeed normal, but often they are perceived as being without emotion, without passion, compassion and unfamiliar with sincerity. Then again, I was taken out of context. Out of the office and out of my suit.
Getting into character
Which got me wondering what clients actually want and what they expect. Do they like the prestigious history, the pomp and ceremony of the legal process? Or would they prefer jeans and t-shirt legal advice? I suspect it depends on the individual and the area we are engaged in. Given what most lawyers charge these days, surely the least we can do is live up to stereotype, dress in pinstripes with a neat side parting (while we still have our hair) and a conservative tie?
If you have had time to see the BBC’s current legal drama, Silk, you may recognise some characteristics being employed by Maxine Peak and Rupert Penry-Jones in particular – stereotypical but familiar to many lawyers and firms: bullying, courtroom tactics, office politics, misogyny, arrogance and an ambivalent relationship with truth and justice. It’s all seemingly about the winning and, in this case, what’s best for you sometimes comes before what’s best for the client.
The criminal Bar – especially the TV version – is not, of course, representative of the majority of real life legal dramas, but it makes for more entertaining television. That’s because the viewers think they understand the difference between right and wrong and this is no more apparent than in a criminal context. They see well turned out actors playing the parts of well turned out barristers, solicitors, clerks and pupils – usually blessed with the Queen’s English and frequently with a history of barristers and judges in the family (sadly for the Bar, the lack of diversity is a continuing problem and this is doing nothing to assist the cause).
There’s also a scene in which the wearing of a wig and gown is questioned by a young pupil. Just like the actors, some of this job is about playing a part and getting into character. For me, that’s often how it feels Monday to Friday. Simply putting on a suit for a meeting changes the way I act if not who I am.
I was recently chatting with a friend and colleague who announced out of the blue that she had been to have her nipple pierced. The piercer asked what she did and she said she was a solicitor. Apparently there is a keen trade in solicitor and police officer piercings ‘below the neckline’. I found it reassuring that individualism is still at large in the profession, if frequently hidden. Conservatism and living to type can be all too boring and, after all, once we are in costume, does it really matter what we are wearing underneath?
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 14 March 2011, and is reproduced by kind permission