Guest blog by Noëlle Quénivet:
The Bristol Business School and Bristol Law School launched at the inception of the 2017/2018 academic year a pilot Faculty Advisory Board Mentoring Scheme, the chief aim being to contribute to UWE staff’s personal and career development and provide further, external feedback on the 360 review that all senior academic staff had undergone in the past few years. Among, the wider purposes of this scheme are to create a culture of positive employee engagement and develop a broader understanding of external organisations and the dynamics within an external business so as to be in a position to engage at the right level in target organisations.
As someone who had never worked in a private company and teaches subjects that lead to careers in the public and charity sector as well as in international organisations the opportunity to meet with someone completely outside my world was incongruous, albeit intriguing. I signed up to the scheme and was allocated Karl Brown, a Senior Associate in the Commercial Property team of Clarke Willmott in Bristol, as my mentor. That was no doubt a full immersion into the private and commercial world! We arranged for our first meeting to be over the phone and used the 360 degree feedback as a guide to help kick off the discussions and identify some specific areas for discussion. Designed to be relatively informal this kind of mentorship works well. Whilst overall as well as specific expectations and objectives are set for such meetings, there is plenty of leeway to broach new issues, topics and challenges I am facing in the Bristol Law School, both as a researcher and a lecturer. It also gives Mr Brown, a member of our Advisory Board, the opportunity to get a glance into the academic world. Furthermore, such meetings are an occasion to exchange ideas and discuss the potential involvement of the private sector in academic life. In other words, it is a two-way street, not just a mentoring scheme.
At one of these meetings Mr Brown suggested I spend a day at Clarke Willmott to gain insights into the way a law firm works. He arranged for me to be placed with Richard Moore, a partner at Clarke Willmott working in its Commercial and Private Client Litigation team which focuses on commercial litigation and dispute resolution. The date was set for Wednesday 11 July, at a time when teaching/marking is off the table. Upon my arrival I was met by Mr Brown who gave me a brief tour of the law firm. I quickly realised the size of the firm and the breadth of the legal issues its employees covered. And this was only the Bristol office as Clarke Willmott has also offices in Birmingham, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Taunton and Southampton! I was then introduced to Mr Moore who presented me to his team and explained the type of work the team undertakes. I was then whisked to attend the compulsory introductory health and safety training.
When I came back from the training three folders had been placed on my desk. Mr Moore explained that it was probably the best way to give me an idea of the type of work carried out by his team. Looking at these folders very much reminded me of my internship at UNHCR London when solicitors would send by post huge folders accompanied by a letter seeking our assistance. I remember staring at my first folder in horror, wondering how I could possibly read this folder in a couple of hours. Indeed, some solicitors would inform us that their client would be deported within days and unless we promptly intervened on their behalf the client would be returned to their country of origin. I quickly learned which documents needed to be read first (or at all) and which sections were the most relevant and thus had to be read in full and with a keen eye for details. All this had to be done in light of UNHCR guidelines and the relevant legal framework. Here, at Clarke Willmott, the case I was given related to a company that had threatened another (and a large number of its customers) with patent litigation if it continued to use a particularly product for which it claimed it had a patent. My knowledge on the subject-matter being pretty much that of a laywoman I decided to focus on the procedure and the practical aspects of the case, eg how can a solicitor know whether a patent claim and counter-claim are genuine, why does a solicitor recommend their client one procedure over another (in this case the shorter trial scheme), how are experts chosen, how is information collected, is it standard practice to reply to a claim paragraph by paragraph (ie point by point), why are there track changes in some of the official documents, etc.? As Mr Moore came back from a meeting I had the opportunity to ask him some of these questions. My next opportunity to understand better the work of a commercial law solicitor was to attend a conference call with a client who had instructed Mr Moore on a variety of litigation matters at Clarke Willmott and his previous firm. Interestingly, he explained to me that some clients even follow solicitors who change law firms. Clearly, this must be an indication of the importance of trust and confidence between a client and a specific solicitor. That being said, Mr Moore also stressed that a hugely positive aspect of being employed by a large law firm is that clients can use the wide range of services offered by the firm and thus all their legal dealings stay ‘in-house’. The conversation indubitably showed this established trust relationship between Mr Moore and his client. The issue at stake was the misuse of a franchise and, sadly for the client, it was not the first time the client was faced with this problem. Mr Moore explained in a very honest manner the advantages and disadvantages of the range of courses of action available to the client. In particular, he pointed out that a change in the law meant that using a previously favoured course of action might not yield the results expected and might be more costly. He expounded his preferred solution which was to send a robust letter to the company in question and to avoid court litigation if at all possible. At first I was a bit bemused by Mr Moore’s attitude as it gave the impression that he was simply saying to the client that they did not need his help. Yet, this would be a flawed understanding of this conversation: capacity-building is part of building a trust relationship between a solicitor and the client. He was advising his client to undertake a course of action which would save them money on legal fees and was putting his client’s interests above those of his own law firm; principle over profit.
Another folder appeared on my desk: it was a pending case relating to fraud in a company. The information was of a different type from the previous case: company reports, interviews, accounting reports, etc. Having previously taught on the module Corporate Governance and Corporate Social Responsibility that is offered on the LLM programme at UWE (see eg LLM in Commercial Law) I was flabbergasted by this example of poor practice of corporate governance. In fact, I wondered whether similar documents could be used as the basis for a student assignment. After all it would neatly fit with the Faculty’s strategic priority to offer practice-led modules and programmes. And so, on my ‘to do’ list appeared the item: ‘need to talk to relevant module leaders and suggest this type of document to form the basis of scenario to be looked at in workshops or set for assignment’.
My last insight into the work of a commercial solicitor was fast-paced: it was a conference call from a known client who was wondering whether they could challenge a procurement decision. In a less than ten minute conversation Mr Moore first tried to get an idea of the relevant legal issues and the time-frame and then asked the client to send him the materials as soon as possible. As he put down the phone he informed his colleague who had attended the call to find out as quickly as possible whether suitable barristers were available for such a case (bearing in mind it looked like a week-end job) and to start the paperwork as soon as the client would send formal instructions to Mr Moore. It was interesting to see the beginning of a case with a team working against the clock and without any prior knowledge of the claim.
Overall I very much enjoyed my day at Clarke Willmott. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the modules we offer and more specifically the design and assessment of these modules. Whereas an academic law degree centres upon the acquisition of relevant legal knowledge and skills procedural issues are hardly ever looked at. They are definitely more the focus on the LPC and BPTC, the professional courses we offer at UWE and prepare law graduates to become solicitors and barristers. The tasks Mr Moore undertook on that day were those taught on these courses, yet without a rigorous knowledge of company law and the law relating to copyright, patent and procurement he would not be able to deal with these cases. It is really a matter of building students’ knowledge step by step whilst giving them an insight into the next step. In fact, students who are taking part in the vast range of pro bono activities offered by the Bristol Law School benefit, like me on my day at Clarke Willmott, from a better insight into the procedural aspects of legal action; one might say, a better insight into the real world.