On the job in Civil litigation

David Edney studies Computer Science and Law at University of Technology Sydney and is now a senior associate at William James Lawyers.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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What is your role?

I am a senior associate at William James Lawyers.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic and professional history?

I grew up in the Sutherland Shire, where I completed my HSC at 15 years of age and then went on to study Computer Science and Law at UTS.  In part because of my age I did not seek out a legal job during university, and I decided against applying for clerkships or similar “big end of town” work after hearing the horror stories of being stuck in a massive team carrying out discovery work all day.

Instead, after university I was fortunate enough to stumble into a graduate role at a mid-sized suburban practice, working in the commercial litigation team with a large volume of debt collection and basic contract dispute work.  That role gave me excellent hands-on experience right from the start - I remember having to call the Law Society from outside Court the day after my admission ceremony to make sure my practising certificate had been issued because I was about to argue a contested motion!  It also introduced me to my current area of practice, insolvency law.

After four years in the suburbs I took a year off to complete a Master of Laws at University College, London, before coming back and taking up a role at a boutique firm in the CBD focusing on larger insolvency and commercial litigation matters.  After four years in that role, I have just in the last few months moved to my current firm, though still working in the same practice area.

What does your job involve?

As a senior associate, I have the day-to-day responsibility for matters (mostly being litigation), though still under the supervision of the firm’s partners.  As a rough guide I probably spent about two-thirds of my time on hands-on legal work of my own and about one-third supervising junior solicitors. 

I always like to tell people that, as a litigator, I spend my days arguing with people and getting paid for it, though of course there’s a lot more to it than that.  No two days are ever the same in litigation, such that it is almost impossible to give a good summary of a typical day or week’s work.  On any given day in any given matter I may be taking instructions from a client, drafting an advice, drafting evidence, planning out a strategy, or all of those things – and that of course is not counting the hearings themselves.  It is that variety that I love about litigation – every case is different, and no two days are ever the same (as cliché a claim as that may be).

Could somebody with a different legal background do your job? Are specific skills required?

While insolvency has its technical elements, most commercial litigation is not all that legally complicated – any lawyer from any area of law could pick up enough to run a case without too much trouble, especially with the assistance of counsel.

Having said that, however, litigation particularly requires “soft” skills.  It’s not about knowing technical points of the law, it’s about dealing with your client (who typically wants nothing more than to not be involved in litigation), piecing together the case, turning it all into a strategy, and then knowing how to either negotiate the best settlement possible or how to present the case as well as it can be presented.  All of those skills are arts, and even the most senior of practitioners are still perfecting them.

Personally, I’d say the most important characteristics for a litigator to have are courage and determination.  Almost by definition, every matter will have at least one other party trying to convince you that your client is wrong, but you need to always be able to press through that and come up with the best approach for your client.

What’s the coolest thing about your job?

For me, the coolest thing about my job is the challenge.  Every case is a puzzle to be solved, by putting the client in the best position possible and then taking them through to either a settlement or, hopefully, success in Court.  When you see your work come together and turn into a win for your client it is an incredible feeling.

What are the limitations of your job?

Just as I enjoy having the challenge of winning for the client, it equally is a huge pressure and responsibility.  You always have to be on your toes and second-guessing yourself, and that can be very stressful.  Similarly, there are times when you do have to put in extra hours, simply because it is what is needed to make a case come together.  However, in saying all of that I am fortunate to be at a firm that has reasonable expectations and is supportive, so your experience will depend on where you end up practising!

Which three pieces of advice would you give to a law student?

Firstly, figure out as best you can an area of law you enjoy.  Even though it’s hard to do as a student, and many may think that it’s impossible to choose their area of practice, the reality is that if you like an area of practice and learn more about it, you absolutely will stand out to prospective employers (and you will be a much better lawyer to boot).

Secondly, and related to my first tip, don’t get involved in things solely for the sake of “resume stuffing”.  That is a waste of time that can be much better spent!

Lastly, and in what is probably the most important piece of advice I can give to any law student, do not fixate on clerkships as if they are the only “true” law job after university.  I am very happy with the path I took in my career, with my time in suburban practice giving me a huge amount of hands-on experience I would never have received in a bigger firm.

 Learn more about working in this field, jump to private legal practice or the Civil litigation law overview.