I have now moved from the Crime and Regulatory Department in Milton Keynes, to my second seat in the Litigation Department in Bedford. This is my second contentious seat and similarly, Anastasia Whitlock and Luke Shaw have moved into their second non-contentious seat. It has been interesting moving directly between the two departments which has allowed me to compare the similarities in both areas and develop my contentious skill set.
The basis of contentious work involves disputes between the parties, which can often involve court proceedings, be that in the criminal or civil courts. Examples of contentious legal work include crime, family, employment, civil and commercial Litigation, certain areas of shipping, personal injury and contentious probate. In contrast, non-contentious work involves parties who often share the same objective, although might have different agendas for pursuing the shared objective. Non-contentious work is often referred to as ‘transactional’, demonstrated by the example of selling a property or transferring a company. Examples of non-contentious legal work include conveyancing, commercial property, company commercial, commercial contracts and wills and probate.
Under the SRA regulations, a trainee must gain practical experience in at least 3 distinct areas of English law, including opportunities to develop their skills in both contentious and non-contentious work. Like many other firms, Woodfines encourage you to undertake a seat in a contentious department because it is a valuable experience to undertake both types of work. This benefits trainees because you are able to decide which type of work you prefer and allows you to have an understanding of how transactional work can potentially turn into a dispute and become contentious further down the line.
The most obvious difference between being a contentious and non-contentious solicitor is that a contentious solicitor is more likely to undertake advocacy throughout their career. Advocacy is a skill taught and assessed during the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and also the Professional Skills Course (PSC). Anastasia Whitlock has discussed an outline of what the PSC entails here.
As you know, Anastasia Whitlock, Luke Shaw, Rosemarie Moulding and I have already completed the Client Care and Professional Standards module for the PSC and last week we attended the Advocacy and Communication Skills core module in London.
The module requires you to partake in a criminal and civil trial. It is practically assessed throughout for your standard of preparation and advocacy. You are separated into groups i.e. prosecution and defence for the criminal trial and claimant and defendant for the civil trial. You are then allocated specific roles by the trainers.
During the assessment, I was allocated the following roles:
1. In the criminal trial I acted on behalf of the prosecution and conducted –
a. Examination in chief of a prosecution witness; and
b. Reply to the defence’s submission of no case to answer.
2. In the civil trial I acted for the one of the defendants and conducted the cross examination of another defendant.
I thoroughly enjoyed the module, particularly conducting the cross examination. I think I can speak for all of us when I say upon completing the course, we all now feel confident that we could exercise the rights of audience at trial in the civil and criminal courts. The rights of audience a solicitor holds applies to the lower courts and an additional advocacy course would need to be undertaken to allow solicitors to speak in higher courts. This is often referred to as obtaining your ‘higher rights’.
Although the thought of conducting a role in a criminal and civil trial might seem daunting, the trainers were incredibly helpful in guiding you through the applicable legal principles and providing you with advocacy tips and tactical suggestions. There were also several coffee breaks throughout the day allowing an opportunity for us to meet other trainee solicitors from different firms and share our experiences to date.
For now, we can put our heads down at work until we undertake the Financial and Business Skills course later this summer. No doubt, one of the trainees will fill you in on how we get on later this year.