What I have learnt from my line managers
How do you learn?
I tend to learn from the example of people around me. If I think it’s good, I follow it or adapt it. As an in-house lawyer for nearly 40 years in government I had plenty of colleagues to learn from at all times and levels, including lawyers, civil servants and government ministers.
Here is a tribute to one section of those people – my line managers – and the examples that they offered of how to develop my legal skills as an in-house adviser:
- Get to the bottom of all complexities but work at pace at the same time
- Offer constructive, practical and risk-based solutions to problems
- Never to say no to a proposed action without offering an alternative to which you could say yes
- Sometimes all that’s needed to go forward is an arguable case
- Don’t waste your words in meetings saying what everyone else has said
- Keep your written advice brief, wherever possible with the answer at the start
- When you have given the advice that’s needed, don’t spoil it by adding further advice on hypothetical future situations
- When advising, make sure you understand your client’s real needs – including the policy and operational context - rather than just answering the question put to you (“Just answer my question!” “But is it the right question?”)
- When advising on a section in a statute, look at the whole Act, not just for the context but also because crucial things can be hidden elsewhere in the Act
- When drafting the law of the land get the structure right and be meticulous in your command of language, grammar, speling (oops) and punctuation …
- … and don’t slavishly follow what looks like a precedent: start with what was called in those days “a clean sheet of paper”
- In public law litigation don’t assume that the merits of your case speak for themselves – make the court fully aware of them
- Challenge counsel; don’t just gratefully accept every piece of advice
- Although government rightly likes to win its cases, it can’t adopt a “win at all costs” mentality and it can be alright to lose a case well
- You work in a hierarchy for a good reason: keep your seniors informed, accept their guidance, ask if you don’t understand, challenge if you think it’s wrong
- Government is complex: build yourself a network and make yourself aware of issues faced by other departments, because you don’t work in a bubble
- “We’re here to support the rule of law”; we give advice when it’s needed, even if it’s not asked for or liked
- Every lawyer at every level sometimes has to “stand up and be counted” when coming under pressure for giving unpopular advice but will be supported by senior colleagues.
The examples don’t set out to be comprehensive. They are personal to me, but they might strike a chord – whether harmonious or not – with others.
We wouldn’t be the lawyers that we are without the coaching, challenge and support from others. Do they know how grateful we are to them, I wonder?