Kevin Poulter fears he may soon be asking his trainees to pass him his slippers
It’s not just a grey hair, it’s a wiry, unruly, thick white hair, 8 inches long and it needs to come out, quickly. Worse still, it has some associates who are less compliant in the ease of their removal. I realise age catches up with us all, but sometimes you just don’t want the signs to be quite so obvious. For me, it comes as a particularly distressing signifier of being a grown up having enjoyed my schoolboy haircut, wrinkle-free skin and cheeky charm for over thirty years.
Unfortunately and as far as I can tell, not one of these signifiers of youth has served me well in my career to date. All too often it seems neither clients nor senior partners want to work with solicitors who look too young, presuming it (presumably) to be an indicator of inexperience, naivety or lack of skill.
Even in these enlightened times where age discrimination is outlawed in the workplace, I have been asked at interview: “have you found it difficult working with clients, looking [as I did] so young?” Of course, the answer was no and remains so to this day. But, there have been moments when I have met a client for the first time and they have looked a little taken aback. Mostly this happens/happened despite the fact that I had dealt with them over the telephone or by email for many months and, in some cases, even years before.
They already know what I am capable of and the experience I have; I just don’t meet their visual preconceptions. In the internet age this happens less as our photos, biographies and CVs can be distributed across the internet without restriction.
It was in the same interview I have referred to above that I was later likened to Harry Potter. I wouldn’t mind so much, but I made a particular effort at the time to wear contact lenses and disguise the lightning scar on my forehead with a floppy fringe. To a limited extent, I can’t blame the inquisitor for his questions, however unlawful they might have been. Clients have certain expectations of their advisers, whether they are solicitors, barristers, accountants or teachers. They expect them to be senior, especially with the prices many of us charge. With age comes experience. Policemen aren’t getting younger, the whole world is getting older. Neither is to blame and neither is able to do anything ‒ well, almost anything ‒ to avoid the inevitable. Apart from Joan Rivers.
Another nail was hammered, super-glued and then welded firmly into my metaphorical coffin this week as the new trainees arrived with their eager faces, bushy tails and fearless optimism.
How hard I tried to think back to a time where I could still live a student lifestyle (consider beans on toast to be a main meal, drink what I wanted, party until the early hours midweek and still turn up for lectures in the morning) but with the added bonus of a salary – as modest as it then was – to be able to afford these things. I know not all trainees are straight out of university, but there is still a sense of positivity which slowly erodes as we progress through our careers. The more we learn, the more we see, the more clients we assist, the more qualified we are at identifying problems, and in seeking out hidden agendas we soon realise that our pessimism is what we are engaged for. We may prefer to call it situation analysis or problem solving, but that’s just semantics.
After the heady days of university living, the carefree training contract and the earnest newly qualified years come expectations of time-recording, business development, and even partnership, perhaps. Mortgages, investments and retirement planning become our topics of conversation – alongside comfortable footwear, ergonomic office furniture and the state of Radio 1. We don’t expect it and can’t say when exactly it happened, but we become what we once called ‘old’.
I’ve already reprimanded one trainee for bemoaning her 24th birthday. As much as I would like to think of myself as the cool older brother to the new intake, I fear that I am instead becoming the embarrassing uncle. At least I have someone in the office who is able to bend down and pass me my slippers.
Farewell youth. It was good while it lasted. I only hope I can remember.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 8 October 2012, and is reproduced by kind permission.