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Career focus: Personal injury law

Even people not lucky enough to be studying law may have heard of the McDonald’s coffee case. In 1994, a New Mexico jury awarded 79-year-old Stella Liebeck almost $3 million in compensation for burns sustained when she spilled a cup of scalding McDonald’s coffee on her lap -- with the case since becoming a by-word for a supposed “compensation culture”.

Less well known is the direct English equivalent, Bogle v McDonald’s [2002] EWHC 490 (QB). Mr Justice Field became an unlikely folk hero among compensation culture warriors when he held that the chain could not be sued over burns from its hot drinks: “Although McDonald’s owe a duty of care to those who visit their restaurants to guard against injury, that duty is not such that they should have refrained from serving hot drinks at all.”

While the legal principles of negligence and life-altering injuries involved in Liebeck and Bogle will ring bells with personal injury practitioners, the cases are (luckily for McDonald’s) not typical. For a start, they involved an actual trial. In most personal injury cases, compensation is agreed out of court, with a settlement negotiated informally or through various dispute resolution mechanisms. That means that a good PI lawyer will quickly master the art of the deal.

“There will always come a point in any case where you have to bring out your negotiating skills,” says Andrew Clark, Director of Personal Injury at Fletchers Solicitors. “That’s the business end, where you can really shine. I can think of other areas of law -- commercial contracts, say, or family -- where there’s negotiation involved, but for anyone who likes to negotiate I think personal injury law would be a great line to go into.”

Other vital attributes for a claimant solicitor are people and communication skills. Typical clients are not corporate executives used to processing legal advice, so being able to have conversations and write letters in plain English is even more important than usual. All the more so when the advice, heartbreakingly for someone with a new and life-altering disability, is that there is no case.

For Clark, though, it’s precisely this human factor that’s been getting him up in the morning ever since 1987: being able to help often catastrophically injured people at perhaps the lowest point in their life.

“I really feel as though I can give something back to them. It’s amazing what kind of a buzz you can get from that. That hasn’t faded in over 30 years.”

Idealists tempted into the fray should look before they leap. There are some challenges on the horizon. Brett Dixon of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers says that it’s a “wretched time for people who are injured through no fault of their own,” citing the Civil Liability Bill about to pass through Parliament. The government plans to reduce the compensation available to those winning a road traffic injury case and make it harder to recover legal costs for lower-value claims.

The effect of these changes -- supporters naturally prefer the term “reforms” -- is expected to be more claimants having to do without a lawyer. On top of recent reductions in legal aid and hikes to court fees, there’s a feeling that the already competitive world of personal injury is about to get even tougher.

“I don’t think we’ve been left alone for many years,” Clark sighs. “There are always some changes afoot.”

The firms that thrive in the coming years, Clark thinks, will be those investing in and embracing technology-driven efficiencies. Artificial intelligence, for example, isn’t just a Magic Circle buzzword: the Fletchers man thinks it has considerable potential in the personal injury field, with computers scanning medical reports for key phrases or helping human lawyers sift incoming cases for ones with legal merit.

If there is a period of consolidation, that has obvious implications for graduates seeking a training contract in this field. But Clark says that those who aren’t successful the first time should be prepared to take the long way around.

“There’s masses of competition for training contracts, or periods of recognised training as they’re called now. I think the days of biding your time and waiting until you’re offered a training contract have gone. What you’ve got to do is, in some cases, make a sacrifice by doing an unqualified paralegal role and showing them what you can do. It’s amazing how you can get noticed as someone who can make a big difference and before you know it, you’re on the ladder.” Clark’s own background is instructive: from his office window, the Southport native can still see the further education college where he studied a BTEC in business studies after leaving school with some “pretty poor grades”. The law module piqued his interest, as did a trip to an employment tribunal to see a real life case, but it took years of entry-level work, followed by practice as a legal executive, before Clark fully qualified as a solicitor in 2000. That may seem like a long time ago, but it’s a route that still holds promise for those struggling for a training contract in today’s hyper-competitive market. “In this day and age, it pays to just get your foot in a solicitor’s practice door,” Clark advises. “At Fletchers we often see people coming in, doing paralegal roles, doing well and getting their training contracts that way. Patience is the key here -- you’ve got your whole career ahead of you. It doesn’t have to happen in an instant.”

 

KEY FACTS

Pay

Variable, depending as ever on location. Personal injury giant Irwin Mitchell pays first year trainees £25,000 outside the capital and £36,000 in it. On the defendant side, BLM pays £22,000 for year one trainees in its regional offices and £31,000 in London. The related but higher value area of clinical negligence will often pay more. Barristers’ chambers specialising in clinical negligence, such as

Serjeants’ Inn and Hailsham Chambers, have pupillage awards of £50,000-65,000.

 

High profile personal injury lawyers

Amanda Yip QC, elevated to the High Court last year; Martyn Day, founder of Leigh Day; Vidisha Joshi, who recently became managing partner of Hodge Jones & Allen aged just 38.

 

Key Elements of the job

Reviewing medical and technical reports, negotiating with the other side, preparing cases for mediation or court (if it gets that far). Claimant lawyers will draft witness statements and communicate with the client about the details of their account and the progress of their case. Traditionally, junior practitioners would cut their teeth on lower value cases, although these are set to dry up.

 

How to get a foot in the door

Like for other types of law, a vacation scheme will go a long way (Fletchers runs one, as well as a legal apprenticeship scheme). Just make sure you make yourself visible to the people who matter during your time in the office: they aren’t likely to want you back if they don’t remember you.

 

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