HM Insights

How to become a Family Lawyer with Jenny Smith

Jenny Smith, Partner and member of the Family Law team here at Harper Macleod LLP, recently took part in a live online discussion (view it online here on periscope) with Erin Bartley, a school-based careers adviser for Skills Development Scotland, to talk about how someone can get in to law and more specifically become a Family lawyer.

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You can read their conversation below, or watch the video here. If you have any questions regarding the discussion please get in touch with Erin for more information. Enjoy!

JS – Jenny Smith

EB – Erin Bartley

How do you get a career in law? 

EB: Hey everyone, so here we are today with, as I advertised earlier Jenny (Smith), from Harper Macleod and she is going to talk to us about law and her career path. So, first of all Jenny, how do you get into the career that you are in now, what's your career journey?

JS: So I did a degree in French and Italian first and then I decided to do law at Glasgow (University) - the two-year accelerated course - and then I did diploma for a year, which is what you have to do if you want to become a lawyer. Normally the law degree is four years, diploma and two-year traineeship. I did my traineeship at a big law firm in Glasgow and then I went to a smaller law firm for 12 months. Then I went to another law firm where I was for 10 years and that's what we call a niche boutique law firm, so I was only ever doing family law. Then in 2016 I moved to Harper Macleod which is a big firm with lots of different types of law that they offer, but also family law, and I am part of their family team.

EB: So what made you change from languages to move into law?

JS: I wanted to do something where I would have a clear career progression and as much as I enjoyed my first degree I wasn’t sure that I would be able to get a job with that clear progression.

EB: Ok and tell me a bit about your job just now?

JS: Ok so I normally deal with people who are separating, and that’s not always that cheery I suppose, but it's nice to try and help people. So there's divorce or there are people who have just been living together, it's what we call cohabitants and their separation and as part of that we deal with financial issues. So if they own a house together what’s going to happen with that? We also deal with arrangements for children. If they have children and they can’t agree the arrangements, so where the children live, when they see the other parent, which school they go to, whether they get to go abroad on holiday, all sorts of things. Then we also do, or my team also does, a bit more unusual things like adoption and surrogacy. I also do prenuptial agreements where people are going to get married and they want an agreement in case they do separate. Cohabitation agreements where they are living together and they might buy the house and be paying for it unequally and they just want a contract in place setting it out. So that's a cheerier side because that's not where people are separated but the bulk of my work is probably separation and divorce.

The best and worst thing about working in law? 

EB: Ok so what would you say is the best thing about your job at the moment?

JS: Seeing people who are really upset and vulnerable and being able to help them through a journey that might take six months, a year, maybe longer and then at the end of that process they come out much better, much happier people, even if, and particularly if, it wasn’t them that chose the separation. That’s nice to see that happening.

EB: And what would you say is the worst thing about your job?

JS: Sometimes people get quite angry, they're not really angry with me they're angry with the situation they are in because we are distressed purchase. Nobody wants to have to pay a lawyer because they didn’t think they were going to separate and it can be hard to deal with people's anger and trying to find a way forward in that situation and it can be quite stressful at times.

EB: Because you are dealing with people in a really high emotional state…

JS: Yes, so when you are a family lawyer it's not just about black letter law. It's not just about the law, you need to have soft skills too, you need to know how to adjust to different people. So you might have a successful businessman who is used to getting his own way and trying to explain to him that in the family context what he wants isn’t achievable. But then you have to switch to deal with perhaps a more vulnerable person who hasn’t worked for a while, who doesn’t know much about what their spouse has done in terms of finances, so it's that ability to have the communication skill as well.

EB: Fantastic. If there's anything you could change about your job at the moment, if you had a magic wand and you could change one thing what would it be?

JS: I would like people who live together - who cohabit, who are not married - to know that unless they do something about it, they don’t get automatic rights from cohabitation. There's no such thing as a common law husband or wife. I think that's what I would like to change.

EB: And you're doing Family law at the moment, had you ever considered other sides of law?

JS: No not really. When you do a traineeship, you normally do different areas of law, what they call seats, so you spend 8 months in 3 different seats. I did general litigation and corporate and my family seat was last. I did quite like litigation but because I was very new to it - because although you've done a law degree you don’t really have a clue until you actually start working - I did enjoy that but it was more corporate litigation so it didn’t have the interaction with people in the same way as family. Corporate, I enjoyed bits of but it wasn’t for me.

What advice would you give to someone looking for a career in law?

EB: So we get a lot of pupils and young people watching the live feeds and obviously I work with young people and a lot of them are really interested in careers in law. What advice would you give to them?

JS: It is quite hard now to get into law in the sense of getting a traineeship because there's a lot of competition, so I think advice wise you need to be proactive, you need to be diligent, enthusiastic and just interested in what you want to do, as well as the obvious of hard working and getting the right grades. But it’s not just about good grades, it's about becoming a valuable team member.

EB: And I was interested in what you said about not really understanding what law is until you are in there doing your degree or out there doing your traineeship. What advice would you give for young people to get more experience of law before they move into the degree?

JS: So some law firms do work experience, Harper Macleod does that for people still at school and I know other ones do, or if there are local firms in your area you can go and approach them, even if it's just a couple of weeks. I think it's a really good way to find out 'is this something I would like to do' and get some experience for your CV.

EB: And would you recommend they maybe try different lawyers and different types of law before moving into a degree?

JS: It might be hard to get enough placements to do that. I mean if you could, the idea would be to get a placement at a general firm. Because my firm (Harper Macleod LLP) does different areas, if you were there for two weeks, you might spend a few days in each or several departments but even when you start your law degree you wouldn’t be expected to know 'I want to be a corporate lawyer'. That would evolve as you go through it and indeed even when you do your traineeship at the outset you might not know what you want to do. I certainly didn’t.

EB: So if you could sum up your job in one or two words what would it be?

JS: It is a satisfying job but sometimes a tricky one but I think that almost adds to the satisfaction when you have a successful outcome.

 EB: Thank you very much Jenny!

JS: You're welcome.

What have we learned about becoming a Family lawyer and a career in law?

EB: So what I really liked about what Jenny was talking about was she recognised all the skills she uses, not just from her law degree, but some of the softer skills. She mentioned things like communication skills and dealing with other people's emotions and being able to adapt and that's something that we talk about in schools all the time. With the career management skills is recognising not just the skills you are going to need for the job or the skills you already have but the ones you are going to be developing so that's really useful to know.

And what’s also great from what Jenny was talking about is how you might not know what type of law you are going to do in the degree and I know certainly as a careers advisor when I'm speaking to young people they can be really, really focused on a certain type of law, particularly family law. I get a lot of young people saying they really want to work in family law but it's about building up that experience. When you go to uni you are going to be learning about things that are brand new to you and you might change your idea as you're going through university.

And it’s to be open to new ideas and flexible and not being too rigid when you start uni so if you start thinking you want to do family law but actually find some of the other areas are more interesting be adaptable to that and recognise you can chop and change and that goes for any subject at uni, not just law.

Thank you very much Jenny for chatting to us today. If anyone has any questions from today feel free to get in contact with me via twitter (@CareersErin). All my details are on there and if there is any particular questions for Jenny I'm sure she wouldn’t mind answering, I'll pass them onto her and we will be back next week for our usual Friday lunch time slot and we are talking about career management skills next week. Thanks everyone! Bye bye!

Skills Development Scotland (SDS)

SDS is Scotland’s national skills body, with professionally-qualified advisers working from its careers centres, community premises and in every state secondary school across Scotland.

Customers can get information and advice covering areas including career choices, jobs and apprenticeships, the local labour market, training courses, CV and application support and interview preparation.

Further career information and advice is available online via SDS’s award-winning career web service