Careers advice and planning

Working life in litigation: perspectives from a partner and a trainee

5 Mar 2024, 10:49

RPC is known for its dispute resolution expertise. But what is it actually like to specialise in litigation and start your training contract in commercial and financial disputes?

Two young RPC staff stood in front of city skyscrapers

RPC’s strong reputation in dispute resolution was one of the reasons why partner Dan Hemming joined the firm as a trainee back in 2008. ‘The quality of work led me to apply. I had an inkling that litigation was of interest,’ he says. ‘I quite like an argument and being right!’

Contentious v. non-contentious law and your training contract

Contentious matters – which dispute resolution/litigation is by definition – essentially involve a disagreement between at least two parties, which can end up in front of a judge. Non-contentious matters are deal- or transaction-oriented and can involve a single party or several. You might also hear legal professionals differentiate between the two as litigation and transactional work.

A good training contract will allow you to explore both aspects of law. Relatively unusually, during his training contract Dan had three contentious seats (rotations) and one non-contentious seat, giving him a broad overview of legal work. However, having a good understanding of how litigation and transactional work compare can help you to choose a law firm to apply to.

There is no doubt that there are popular misunderstandings about dispute resolution and litigation. Jani Ihalainen, a trainee in his first seat who works with Dan, tells targetjobs: ‘There is a misconception that it is always a fight, but it’s not – it is resolution of a dispute by any means.’ In fact, Dan assures us that it is the exception rather than the rule that matters end up in court. So, we quiz Dan and Jani to find out what working in litigation is really like.

Introducing Dan and Jani

Dan Hemming studied philosophy as his undergraduate degree, joined RPC as a trainee in 2008, qualified in 2010 and became a senior associate in 2015. He made partner in commercial and financial disputes in 2020.

Jani Ihalainen completed the LPC in 2020, having previously worked as a paralegal at RPC and other firms following his graduation with a masters in law in 2013. He is now an associate but at the time of writing was a trainee and therefore speaks about the experience of being a trainee.

Find out why Jani applied for a training contract at RPC.

Tell us about litigation in your practice area.

Dan: In commercial and financial disputes, we act for clients ranging from high-net-worth individuals to all sorts of organisations operating in the financial services sector, in addition to those working in other sectors. We quite often act against the big investment banks – in fact, we get a lot of this work referred to us by other law firms. Such a matter begins with a client coming to us with a problem – either they believe themselves to have been wronged and want compensation or they themselves are being sued by the bank.

Following the 2008 credit crunch, for example, there was a lot of work around misselling claims. There were allegations that in the lead up to the financial crisis the banks had either given poor advice around loss-making financial products, or had made misrepresentations about them, and we became known for pursuing these. In fact, I gained quite a lot of expertise in these early on in my career. However, as we work on a range of matters, we like our lawyers to gain a wide range of experience alongside developing particular specialisms.

It’s fair to say that being a litigator involves a lot more actual ‘black letter’ law than many other practice areas, which is one of the things that appeals to me. Transactional law is more often negotiation and deal-making, while litigation often involves more close reading and legal analysis. Litigation cases can take longer, too: a couple of years as a rule of thumb. But it is relatively unusual for them to end up in court.

Cases might settle through discussions between the parties facilitated by a neutral third party (mediation), or the parties can exchange written offers of settlement. Settlement processes tend to be more solicitor-led than barrister-led. To take mediation as an example, parties will prepare and exchange position papers before mediation (which usually include comments on the parties' cases and what you think the strengths and weaknesses are), and solicitors will give opening statements and then advise clients as the settlement discussions progress.

So what would a commercial litigator actually do?

Dan: Most of our matters tend to be big and so there is often a large team working on them: typically, two partners, two or three senior associates, a number of junior associates, at least one trainee and paralegals as required. As matters are quite complex, we also tend to work within a wider integrated team, including barristers and expert witnesses. For example, we frequently call upon forensic accountants when there are valuation issues – for instance to pinpoint what something is worth at a single point in time which might be relevant to the value of a claim.

As a new partner I now run slightly smaller matters without supervision, with an associate and a trainee if needed. However, on larger matters I manage the day-to-day running of different workstreams, delegating to associates and reporting to the senior partner. A workstream could be preparing the pleadings. It could be disclosure (which involves searching documents for potential information, identifying relevant documents and providing them to the other parties). This is often the biggest workstream. After that, it could be the preparation of witness statements, followed by expert witness statements. Then it would be trial, unless there is a settlement in the meantime.

Jani: I help with drafting emails, witness statements, other documents and notes. I undertake research tasks, which might be points of law or on specific companies. At other times, I could be working with clients directly, although I don’t get as much client contact as some trainees in other departments because the main matter I am working on has been ongoing for a while and client relationships are established. I might also be project managing disclosure – for example, keeping track of where documents are and what certain processes are.

I also get involved with business development, for example drafting articles or blogs, and I might deliver some training as well as attending it. We have bi-weekly internal training bulletins, in which we update colleagues on bigger cases and so on.

What has been a pivotal learning point for you so far?

Dan: When I was two years qualified, I worked on a big case that took up most of my time. I joined part of the way in, but stayed on it for a couple of years all the way through to trial. As mentioned, big trials are actually quite rare and I was lucky to work on one at such an early stage in my career. Until you attend a trial and observe the witness in the witness box, how counsel works and how the judge reacts, it is hard to understand the importance of all the processes you need to go through: the thorough drafting of the witness statements, for example. It also reaffirmed to me how essential teamwork is – spending all day at trial over several weeks, you need a good team around you.

Jani: Even though I previously worked in the intellectual property group at RPC, I’m working with lots of different people and learning new things – coming across financial instruments I’ve never even heard of before! You do learn a bit about litigation on the LPC (as was), but RPC is great at providing the formal training you need to handle a disputes seat and you can ask anyone for help at any time. If you have the confidence to ask ‘what is this financial instrument?’ – or any other specific questions – people will take time out to answer them.

What’s the work/life balance like?

Dan: My working day has changed a little since working at home because of Covid-19, but it typically works out at about 9.00 am to 6.30 pm or 7.00 pm. As a partner, you do have to accept that you are ‘on call’ to clients. If a client needs a response to an email at 9.00 pm, I will give it – but there is no focus on putting long hours in just for the sake of it or to keep up appearances. You work hard when needed but, when you can log off on time, you are encouraged to.

Jani: I tend to log in around 9.00 am and finish around 7.00 pm. The matter I’m mainly working with has been relatively predictable so it’s been a nice steady hum for me. Some trainees in other seats have had more variation in working hours, with more peaks and troughs.

What type of person will litigation suit?

Dan: As mentioned, you need to be a team player. One of the best things for me about working in litigation at RPC is being part of a large team, all pulling together; I wouldn’t suit working alone on a large number of small matters.

All lawyers need to be resilient, but in litigation you need a different type of resilience than in transactional work. In much of transactional work, the busy-ness is a shorter, sharper shock, in which you might be busy for a few months and then the transaction is finished. In litigation, the work is extended over a longer period of time. It is more attritional – which is why you need the support of a good team.

Contrary to popular belief, litigation suits all sorts, not just extroverts. I’m much more analytical than outgoing and litigation is still a good home for me – don’t be put off if you don’t relish jumping up and down in front of 100 people!

But I’d stress at RPC we don’t seek a ‘type of person’.

Jani: The skills I use the most are similar to those I think you need across the board in law: attention to detail, the flexibility and proactivity to pick up work, communication skills and being able to work as a part of teams of all sizes.

What makes a ‘good’ trainee?

Dan: I look for trainees who have a genuine interest in the subject matter (this is hard to fake and it’s very clear when trainees are feigning interest) and who have a strong desire to learn. We are interested in people who can make a positive contribution to whatever they’re doing. In turn, we all want trainees to have the best experience possible (and to work on a range of matters within the department); after all, we want trainees to want to qualify into our team!

Go to RPC's hub if you'd like to learn more about RPC in general.

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