Susan Fairless – An interview for You and Your Career
Susan - Questions
- Can you tell us a little bit about what prompted you to study to be a solicitor?
I didn't originally start out to be a Solicitor. When I left school, I headed off to university to study for a nursing degree and qualified as a Registered Nurse. It was a few years later whilst I was working in Accident and Emergency that I decided that I wanted to consider my options. I loved most aspects of my job, but the NHS at the time wasn't the easiest place to work. I realised that I was surrounded by doctors, nurses and other health care professionals who were putting their heart and soul into their work - but the conditions they had to work under meant that they couldn't always get the results that they (and the public) expected. It was heartbreaking to talk to the senior staff, who had given their whole working lives to the NHS, talking about how they had come to hate their jobs. That wasn't the only thing, of course. Not long before, I had had a colleague have her arm broken by a patient's relative - who decided that attacking one of the nursing staff was a good way to vent his frustrations for his family member having to wait for treatment in a busy department. That was the worst example of staff abuse, but far from the only one. All in all, it added up to spending days doing an impossible job under very difficult (and occasionally frightening) conditions with little in the way of thanks or reward. It made me stop and consider whether that was where I wanted to be in twenty years time. I knew that, if I was going to continue as a nurse, I had to take some time away to decide whether it was right for me.
I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to go back to university. I have always been one of those people who enjoys learning for learning's sake. I had always been interested in law. After some research, I decided that I would enrol for a LLB. That meant that I would have a law degree, and would give me options. When I started the course, I figured that it would give me a couple of years to decide what I wanted to do. If I wanted to carry on with law, the degree would give me the qualifications I needed to study to be a Solicitor. If I decided that I wanted to return to the NHS full time - well, a law degree never hurt anyone!
As it was, I loved studying law from the first day. It didn't take long for me to realise that I had found my true passion, and I never looked back! By the time I finished my undergraduate degree, there wasn't a question in my mind about what I was going to do - to carry on and study to be a Solicitor was the natural next step. In doing so, I realised that being a nurse isn't the only way to help people - that I could bring as much benefit to people's lives by helping them to prepare for their futures and protect their families. At the end of the day, it's all about caring. Now I get to care in a different way, but I continue to employ many of the same skills.
- What did you most enjoy about the course?
There are, in fact, various ways to qualify as a Solicitor. The way I went about it is really the most traditional. I read for an undergraduate degree in law. Then I studied for the LPC (Legal Practice Course) as a postgraduate. I also did my training contract with a law firm - working for 2 years under the supervision of qualified and experienced Solicitors.
What was slightly less traditional was that I decided that, instead of taking three years to go through my undergraduate degree, I would do it in two. This turned out to be a real challenge, especially since I was still working as a nurse part time to help fund my studies. I've never been afraid of a bit of hard work though, and I threw myself into it. I loved the variety of the degree. It was a real opportunity to explore all different aspects of law. Given my background, when I first started out in my studies, I had assumed that I would go down a route towards something clearly medical-based. I know I had lots of conversations with various people who all seemed to ask whether I was intending to work in personal injury law or medical negligence. Whilst it was interesting to study something about these areas, and my nursing background certainly helped with this, I soon learned that I was definitely not a litigator! I have a lot of respect for those Solicitors who spend their time fighting for people's rights, but standing in court arguing isn't what I do best. Helping people to take the steps necessary to ensure that they and their families do not end up in Court in the first place is just as valuable and rewarding. My studies gave me a chance to look at so many different areas, most fascinating in their own ways, and decide what was right for me. This also means that I, as with all Solicitors, have a wide range of basic knowledge which is an invaluable resource we can use for our clients.
- What did you find the most interesting aspect about the legal system/law?
How it affects people and their day to day lives. The law affects us all, and it can make a real difference - both good and bad. It is so important for everyone involved to get it right at all levels - from a draft Bill going through Parliament, to interpreting laws and advising clients, to testing those laws in Court.
- You now work as part of a firm of solicitors - tell us a little bit about what you specialise in?
I work for Wards Solicitors, a law firm based in the South West. Wards Solicitors actually covers the majority of legal services people require. Our lawyers specialise in different areas. I am part of their Wills and Probate team. That means that my work encompasses Wills; Lasting Powers of Attorney; and the administration of people's estates. I also do work with the Court of Protection, with regards to various mental capacity issues. What that means in more practical terms is that I work with individuals and families to sort out their general affairs.
My clients can be almost anyone. One day there will be a couple with young children who want to make Wills and Powers of Attorney so that their children are looked after and protected should anything happen to them. The next I will be meeting with a family who have just lost a loved one and who need to make sure that what was in the Will is put into effect - or who are trying to work out what should happen to their assets if they didn't leave a Will behind! In the middle of that, I may be meeting with a family who are facing a crisis because a relative has lost mental capacity and they need to obtain a court order allowing for someone to manage their finances on their behalf, so they can continue to be cared for.
- What do you find to be the most rewarding part of what you do?
I have always loved working with people. It was the reason that I became a nurse in the first place, and it remains the reason I love my job today. Whilst my two careers seem so very different to the casual observer, in actual fact, in many ways they are so similar. I deal with people who have problems that they need help with. I guide and support them through unfamiliar territory and help them at very difficult times of their lives. Working at Wards Solicitors not only makes me feel like I make a difference, but I get to see that every day because most of the people and families I work with are local. Having personal contact with my clients is, to me, the most rewarding part of my job.
- Can you describe a typical day?
My day usually starts when the office opens at 9am. The structure of the day is worked around appointments. Usually I will have at least a couple of client appointments. A busy day would be around 5 appointments - especially considering that an appointment takes half an hour to an hour! People come to see me about all sorts of things - even though I specialise in a certain area of law, there's still more than enough to keep me on my toes, and you never quite know what you're going to be asked next. Many of my clients come to the office to see me, but when they can't get in to me, I will go round to visit them at home. This is especially important in my area of law, because many of my clients are elderly or disabled and find getting out and about difficult. Wards Solicitors also run a legal clinic every week at a local charity drop in centre, which I help with.
Most of my day-to-day work comes in with the post (though an increasing amount arrives by email these days!). I go through my post and organise/prioritise what needs to be done. I am assisted at the office by two excellent secretaries.
I spend a lot of time drafting documents for clients from the instructions they have given me in meetings. This would involve writing Wills, drafting Powers of Attorney, making applications to the Court. I also draft inheritance tax returns, and make applications to the Probate Registry. I keep track of all the cases that I have active at any one time, to make sure that they are all progressing as they should. I deal with the various enquiries and questions that come up, taking calls from not only clients, but accountants, financial advisers, estate agents and other lawyers.
- What do you think would surprise people the most about working as a solicitor?
Probably that this is actually just another job! People have this idea that Solicitors are people in designer suits being paid an absolute fortune to appear in Court all the time, or middle aged men in grey suits sitting in dusty offices. These are the stereotypes that TV and film put on us a lot of the time. The reality for most of us is very different. The comment I get most from my clients is that I am nothing like they expected me to be, in the best possible way. A lot of people can get very nervous about coming to see a Solicitor, because we can be viewed as unapproachable and condescending - I surprise people on a daily basis by being neither. At the end of the day, this is just another job (one that I love), and I am just another person. Like most jobs, there are elements of it that are mundane, and there are elements that surprise you.
- What do you think are some of the key qualities you need to be a solicitor?
You have to be able to listen to the client. The core of a Solicitor's role is to put your client first. Everything we do has to be in our client's best interests. You can't act properly without being able to listen to your client and what they're telling you. You also, however, have to be able to think around what your client is telling you. They come to you for advice, after all. You have to be able to see their problems and issues from angles that they may not have considered. What is in the client's best interests is not always what they want to do, and a Solicitor has to be prepared to tell the client what they don't want to hear, if necessary.
You need patience, understanding, and to really care about your clients and what you're doing. That is especially true in my area of law, where you deal on a day to day basis with bereaved families, and people often facing an uncertain future.
Of course, you also have to know what you are talking about! The benefits of training as a Solicitor is the sheer breadth of the legal education and training that you receive. Whilst I now specialise in Wills and Probate work, I have studied and worked in a variety of other areas over the years. This means that not only can I offer my clients a detailed, specialist knowledge, but I have a good grounding and general knowledge of other aspects of the law. As a result I can often pick up issues which my clients haven't even considered, and help them recognise issues before they become problems.
- Which do you find the most challenging aspects of what you do?
Managing client expectations can be a real challenge at times! When most people walk into a Solicitor's office, they are walking into the unknown. They have all sorts of preconceptions about what will happen, but very little actual idea. Some things turn out to be far simpler than they had expected them to be. Some things take far longer and are more complicated. Being able to quickly ascertain what the client expects of you, work out how that measures up to what you can deliver, and then communicate that to the client is something that you learn how to do very quickly. You then have to maintain that as part of the ongoing process. So often in law, matters do not turn out quite as they seem. We deal with people and organisations, opinions and perspectives. Often things change as they go along, and we have to be able to make sure our client understands what is happening, why it is happening, and what effect it will have on them, or the end result.
- How different is your working life now from what it was before you became a solicitor?
There is the obvious, of course. I now work in an office and spend a lot of the time in front of a computer, or sitting round a table discussing things with clients. A stark contrast to hours spend dashing round an Accident and Emergency department at all hours of the day and night!
I now work regular office hours, rather than shift patterns. I know when I'm going to be home, and I know I'm not going to get a call at 5am, asking me if I can cover a shift starting at 6:30am.
It is the similarities that often surprise people when I talk about my change of career. I may no longer be there when a person is told that they have a terminal condition, but I am there to help them put their affairs in order, so that they don't have to worry about things and can enjoy the time they have left. I'm not there in the hospital after grandma, or dad has had a stroke and has been told that they can't go home on their own - but I am there to help the family work out what needs to be done to make sure they get the best possible care.
My work still involves so many of the same skills. Listening, helping, the emotional care that people need at difficult times. The ability to work with a team of people to achieve an end. The ability to think on my feet and come up with a practical solution quickly and efficiently with a minimum of fuss. Understanding that sometimes, people just need someone who can say 'I will take care of this for you'.
- How do you manage your time on a day-to-day basis?
I have a great team around me - that certainly helps!
Working in a busy office, time management is an essential skill. I make sure that I have a well-managed diary, and that I have time blocked out not only to see clients, but also to work on matters which need longer periods of attention. It does, however, help to be flexible. When clients have questions, I try to be available to speak to them, so that simple matters can be dealt with immediately, or I can arrange an appointment if they need more of my time for more complicated questions.
- What are your ambitions for the future?
It is always lovely when people start referring to you as 'their Solicitor'. It is so important for people to have someone that they trust, that they can turn to when they need help. I am that person for so many of my clients, and their families and I know that I will be involved in their lives for a long time to come. You don't get much better job satisfaction than that.