Duly noted – The journey to finding the right study method

Well, it’s only taken 6 months, but I’ve managed to work out how best for me to work towards my GDL. Trouble is, there are only a handful of workshops and lectures left to put it into practice. Despite this, I thought I’d write about my new method and why it’s been good for me, as well as how I arrived at it. The hope is, as it is with many of my blogs, that at least one person will read it and find it useful.

I began the year working very hard. I would prepare for my workshops by doing the reading in the Study Manuals that the College provides, highlighting and underlining as I went. I’d do all the prep activities and come to the workshops full of beans. I found, though, that I wasn’t retaining much of the information once I’d learnt it. The College is big on its students consolidating their knowledge, but having tried it a couple of times and felt that it didn’t help that much, as well as feeling that it left me short of time to prepare for upcoming workshops if I was looking back at the same time, I abandoned consolidation.

I carried on with this method of working until my January exams. I then found that I had very few notes from which to revise (which should probably have occurred to me earlier, I’ll grant you) and tried making them from the things I’d highlighted and underlined in the manuals. These notes were serviceable, but not exceptional, because I’d forgotten what was truly relevant as a result of the time between those workshops and making the notes.

I then resolved to take notes instead of merely highlighting the book. This I did diligently, taking umpteen pages of notes for every workshop, colour coding cases and statutory provisions for ease of reference, and building up a stock of notes at last. I was doing all of this before workshops, which was time-consuming, but I was finding it pretty useful. I found, though, that my retention didn’t really improve all that much, and my involvement in workshops decreased because I was looking through notes rather than listening or participating. The other factor was the time it was taking me to make my way through the notes. Some of the chapters in the manual are very dense and I was having trouble distilling the information into something that was manageable. I’d often take notes, only to find that the workshop taught me something different, or at least placed the focus on certain vital cases that weren’t given that focus in the text.

Given these factors, I decided to combine my two approaches. I decided to read the relevant chapters before the workshop, understanding the concepts and underlining the occasional (and I mean occasional) sentence. I’d then do the prep activities that the classes required, and take them along to the workshops. I’d make as many notes as I possibly could about structure and content in the workshop as I could, augmenting my conceptual understanding with the structure required by “GDL land” as the tutors refer to the course. Then, once the workshop had finished, I’d go to the library and make notes from the chapter, making my workshop notes complete using the Manual, but retaining the emphases that I’d been given by the tutor and allowing the tutors, rather than the book, to give the lessons.

I’ve found that my retention and understanding has increased, I’m doing the consolidation whilst not fighting with upcoming workshop work so much, and I’m able to make notes with the benefit of knowing what’s vital and what’s less important.

I’m not suggesting that this method is for everyone – everyone works and revises and learns differently. But I’d advise that students be as critical as possible of their own working methods. The course is very information-dense, and not working as effectively as you possibly can for much of the course can be a bit of a problem. Everything’s starting to come together now in my mind, which is good, and I think it probably would have done even without the change of working habits. But they certainly haven’t harmed the process.

I wrote in a previous blog about the importance of constantly evaluating your own performance and knowing how to get the best out of yourself. This is yet another example of where I think it comes in handy. People may disagree with this statement or my methods – but I know they’re right for me. Which is, after all, the most important thing.

Is it dangerous to put your head above the parapet? Anonymity in legal blogging

Recently, I read an interesting blog by Miss TS Tweets, a Trainee Solicitor somewhere in southwest England (so she says). The post was about articles that she writes for journals or magazines, which are credited to her supervisor rather than to her. Despite wanting some credit for her writing, she says that she values her anonymity too much to repost the articles on her (excellent) blog.

She’s not by any means the only blogger who relies on anonymity. Magic Circle Minx’s post about the skills she can add to her CV is one of the best advertisements for anonymity there is, whilst Legal Bizzle consistently utilises his pseudonym to reveal things about contracts he sees and people he deals with.

At the recent #LawBlogs seminar, Alice Morrissey posed the question of whether it was wise for people who were looking for training contracts to conceal their identity online, for fear of what they said being used against them.

I have never had a problem with people looking at what I do online. Perhaps that’s because I live a dull life, but perhaps it’s because I know that there is a likelihood that even if prospective employers don’t search online for information about you, prospective clients might. The other major reason I’ve never minded – and even actively encouraged – people searching for me online is that I’m actually pretty proud of what I do and the things I write.

The real issue comes, I think, with the tone in which you’d like to write. As far as I’m concerned, I’d be happy for anyone to read my blogs and know who I am. If I was writing in a more critical manner, I might not be so keen for that to happen. That’s not to say that named blogs must be consistently uncontroversial and never say a word out of line – Tim Bratton, Tom Kilroy and Melanie Hatton educate just as much as Legal Bizzle does, they just do it in a different manner.

The extension of my thought process led me to wonder whether, once offered a training contract, I’ll need to be more careful in what I write. After all, I’ll no longer have to simply worry about my own reputation, but also that of the firm. I came to the conclusion that my writing style and tone simply differs from bloggers like Magic Circle Minx. As such, I don’t think the content of my blogs will change dramatically, even if I encounter situations which are similar to those she has faced, such as fetching haemorrhoid cream for a supervisor.

It is largely unavoidable that one will feel a greater amount of security when writing under a pseudonym than when putting one’s own name next to what is being written, with everything that may come as a result of one idle internet search by an employer, colleague or client. Oedipus Lex summarised it best here:

http://twitter.com/Oedipus_Lex/status/47953457197498368

That appears to be the crux of the issue for me. There is no objective right or wrong answer to the question of whether anonymous is better or not. It merely depends on the kind of writing you wish to publish (even this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule – Travis The Trout writes some of the most helpful and insightful blogs around and is perfectly happy to conceal his identity). If you’re thinking about blogging or tweeting, and are wondering whether to do it anonymously or not, just think about what you want to write and how free you’d like to feel when doing it. One of the many things the #TwitterJokeTrial has taught us is that what is posted online is not always akin to having a chat with friends in the pub. You sometimes need to be on better behaviour than that.

I don’t find posting under my own name to be much of an inhibition at all. I don’t change what I write as much as I thought I would. Each person needs to weigh up the factors for themselves. For me, the benefits have far outweighed any burden I may have felt to alter my style or content.

What makes a good commercial lawyer? A prospective Trainee’s perspective

I return to blogging today after an absence of nearly two weeks. I was struggling for inspiration, as well as having one or two other things on my mind, and could not think of what to blog about.

Luckily, inspiration arrived in the form of Barry Gross’s blog about what being a transactional lawyer means to him. Barry, a Real Estate partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner, talks about working on commercial deals and balancing the amount of law involved with the commercial nous he has developed.

There have been many interesting debates on this topic over the years, I am sure, and they have found their way onto Twitter recently, with varying views proposed by Barry, Michelle Hynes-McIlroy and others. As a future trainee solicitor, I have been given copious amounts of advice on this particular matter and, whilst not having vast amounts of experience to draw on, am able to proffer a view from this side of the career.

Commercial awareness is a major buzz-phrase in the application world. You must exhibit it in order to attain a training contract at a commercial firm (which, as I’ve already discussed, is the ambition of many law students – whether rightly or wrongly). But is this examined effectively in interviews? And do prospective trainees fully understand its meaning?

Commercial awareness is often taken on face value by applicants. This means that many assume that reading a newspaper and being able to follow a story will be good enough. And sometimes they’re right – there are some firms that either ask “Please tell us about a commercial issue that caught your eye recently and explain its significance” or, more fiendishly, “Please tell us your thoughts on X Commercial Issue”. The second of these is less fair, in my opinion, because it presumes an interest in that particular issue. I was once asked about the Irish bailout. I was able to give a complete overview, but because my interest had been in other areas, I was unable to provide the depth that other candidates were obviously able to give, as I received feedback that my answer did not go far enough.

Nevertheless, assuming that the firm will allow you to place your own stamp on the information, is being able to follow one story really enough? Possibly not. Even if you do get the direct question about a commercial issue, it’s the second half of the question which is truly a measure of your commercial awareness.

The significance of the issue that you choose is where the firm sees if you understand that the world does not operate in a series of parallel bubbles, but more like the circles in a Venn diagram, where the worlds of law, commerce, politics and many others overlap in all kinds of areas. This is particularly important if there isn’t a “commercial news story” question at all, as there often isn’t.

A recent poster on a message board talked of their feedback after an interview which contained a commerciality question – which I will get to shortly, and links perfectly with Barry’s blog – but no topical news story question. They said:

The firm told me that my current commercial awaress was just okay, some parts good but I didn’t go into enough detail on some things. We didn’t really talk much about current news or anything though… maybe I should have randomly brought up some topics?

The full comment can be found by clicking here

I know someone else who had an interview at this same firm. They had, as I’m sure our commenting friend had, done extensive reading of the commercial and financial press, but knew that the idea was not to “randomly bring up topics” but to use the current issues to justify answers in other areas. For instance, it’s very difficult to just “randomly” bring up a topic of current news – in an interview, a conversation in which you as the interviewee do not set the agenda, you can’t pipe up with “so what do you think of BP’s deal with Reliance in India?” What you can do, though, is use current issues to furnish your answers, such as answering a question of why you want to work for an international firm with some quotes about the jurisdictions they work in or projections of where the markets may move over the next few years. This is the real way to show what is commonly known as “commercial awareness”, in my opinion. The information itself isn’t an indication of your commercial nous – that part comes in your understanding of the way that information applies to the world of commercial law, or the way commercial law applies to that particular news item.

However, commercial awareness isn’t only to be found in the Financial Times. As Barry talks about in his blog, commercial awareness means something completely different to commercial lawyers, particularly transactional lawyers.

I once asked a solicitor for a definition of commercial awareness. I was expecting something quite self-evident about being aware of the world around you and making sure that you understood how businesses operate. But he replied that commerciality to him was about getting your client from A to B with a minimum of fuss. Sometimes that wasn’t in the way the client first envisaged, but his role as a solicitor wasn’t supposed to be that of a regulator or applications officer, it was as facilitator. He mentioned that some lawyers he deals with just sit in meetings and say “we can’t do that” and end the sentence there, whereas others would say “well, we might not be able to do that, but we can get the same result by doing this instead”.

Commercial awareness is therefore more than just knowing what was on the front page of the newspaper today. It’s understanding businesses, knowing the kind of things to consider if someone approaches you for advice on a business opportunity they’ve been offered or that has presented itself. As a commercial solicitor, your life is based on advising these kind of clients – and that broadly applies in whatever branch of commercial law you end up in. In that situation, you have to be able to show that you understand their issues and their concerns. It’s why part of being a good commercial lawyer is knowing the industry or industries in which your clients operate like the back of your hand. Clients will come to you because of your expertise and knowledge of their industry and your ability to enable them to reach a successful conclusion to their problem. They can just as easily buy a newspaper as you can if they wanted commercial knowledge in that sense.

I mentioned earlier that the commenter’s interview contained a commercial question. This, according to various websites about the firm and its interview processes, would have been something like “your friend has returned from travelling and announced that he wants to set up a chain of hotels called ‘Sleep-eze’. Advise him on this issue”. The difference between the commercial awareness required for a “tell me about a news story” question and this particular example is, I hope, plain to see. It is this kind of scenario that Barry refers to when he talks of being commercial.

It appears therefore that the phrase “commercial awareness” may be a misnomer in certain circumstances. Of course there is a need to keep up to date with the news – the feedback I showed you earlier is an illustration of how you need to be informed about world commerce issues, if only to convey to your interviewers your enthusiasm for commercial matters. But being a commercially aware lawyer runs so much deeper than mere information – it’s about thinking like a businessman and a lawyer at the same time. If you are a prospective commercial lawyer, I would read Barry’s blog. There will be some who disagree with him on the importance of being commercial, but I am not one of them. As someone once said to me, “being the best technical lawyer does not always equate to being the best practical lawyer”. Recognising that law does not operate in a bubble is, in my opinion, the first and most important step towards commercial awareness.

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