Connor Muir | Trainee Solicitor at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS)
Our next guest is Connor Muir. Connor is a Trainee Solicitor at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service currently in his second year and is due to fully qualify in March 2021. He is an ex-Napier undergraduate and went on to the Diploma in Legal Practice with the University of Glasgow.
1. Tell us a bit about your background. What university did you attend? Did you take a year abroad? What were your favourite/worst subjects in university? Did you participate in any societies?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school at all, even at the end of 6th year. My grades were okay but certainly not the best and not good enough to even consider Law as a career choice. I then went on to work in Investment Banking at RBS for a year and a half which is a job I just fell into. While I was there, I managed to speak to some of the in-house lawyers there and it sounded like a career that would suit my personality and skills. From there I searched different universities’ LLB requirements and found if you managed to gain an HNC in Legal studies at college then you could enter first year at Napier, and that’s exactly what I did.
At Uni I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the work, as you were thrown in with people who were, on paper far more academically talented, but I soon realised I could match them when it came down to subjects that you enjoyed studying for (not like Maths or sciences at school in my case). One of my first classes at uni was a criminal class and it was described by our lecturer (Duncan Spiers) as the “sexy area of law” and I have to say I absolutely agreed. After learning about different criminal trials and what was on the line for everyone involved, I could never really look at the likes of conveyancing or succession in the same way as I did with Criminal law. In fourth year I opted to take Sports Law and loved it, but essentially there are very limited opportunities for any career purely in Sports law so I decided to solely focus on a career in criminal law.
I then moved on to do the Diploma at Glasgow which I absolutely loved. The fact I was in a new city and at a new uni made the whole course even more enjoyable. I really enjoyed the hands-on approach compared to the LLB. It wasn’t about remembering a vast amount of cases and random legal theories but more about how to apply everything in a practical manner to get the desired outcome.
In terms of societies, I was part of the Law society from 2nd year to 4th year. First, I started off as events co-ordinator then treasurer then finally as President. I was also part of the football team which I think was just as invaluable as it gave me a focus outside of the law and studying which really kept me going through some tough times!
2. What made you choose to pursue a career in the legal profession? How did you know you wanted to work in criminal law?
Once I realised I could complete the LLB and come out which a decent degree, I knew there was nothing stopping me. All my preconceptions of “you have to be extremely naturally intelligent to be a Lawyer” went out the window and I quickly realised it was actually just how well you prepared and interpreted different cases which is something anyone can do with the right tools and attitude. I then set my sights on the Diploma and getting a traineeship ideally in criminal law (after my experience of criminal law at uni) but realistically anywhere and after those two years when I was qualified, I could worry about what I wanted to focus on. In my third year of the LLB, I spent 2 weeks at Wilson McLeod in Edinburgh, a well-known defence firm. They were brilliant, and it gave me a real feel of what being a criminal defence lawyer was all about. In my Diploma year, I managed to get a week’s work experience with the Crown Office and saw what the other side of the table was like, so I was able to compare the two and decide which one suited me more. Essentially at that point, I knew I only wanted to go into criminal law and nothing else if I was lucky enough to pick.
3. When applying for traineeships, how did you find the process? Did you already have a lot of legal experience before applying?
Honestly, I found the process of applying for traineeships more physically and mentally draining than the 6 years of studying I had done. It is an awful process and I think there are very few people who found it easy and simple, unfortunately. I started applying in 3rd/4th year as all the big firms hire so far in advance and honestly, I shouldn’t have bothered. I had absolutely no interest in working within those firms and when you send tens of applications away not to hear anything back at all it is brutal and makes you doubt yourself. I finally got lucky and had an interview with Thorntons up in Dundee, again not an area of law I was overly keen on at the time, but the firm itself seemed fantastic and I had heard really good things about working for them so that’s what convinced me to go for it. I think at my interview they could tell I wasn’t fully interested in the type of law that they dealt with and essentially that’s what let me down. By that stage, I had already applied for the Crown once and got rejected in fourth year, so I was really starting to panic. There seemed to be no defence traineeships either, so it nearly got to the point where I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I decided to apply for the Crown again when I was doing the diploma and managed to get through to the interview stage this time. I then prepared as much as I could for that and thankfully got through. I still remember being on holiday when I saw the email come through and it genuinely made me feel sick to the bottom of my stomach as I knew this was probably the last chance of getting a traineeship. I am absolutely not ashamed to say I cried when I read I had the traineeship. It was such a relief from all the years of studying and all the unanswered applications to know I had a traineeship and could start my career. It is a truly awful process and I think if you can prepare yourself mentally for that before you start the applications then you will be in a much better place than I was during it. You just need to keep believing in yourself, persevere, and if you manage to come through that then you are truly ready to deal with anything this job or any other job can throw at you.
In terms of legal experience, it was only the experience I mentioned before, with Wilson McLeod and the Crown, so I was very much at a disadvantage against people who had trained previously as paralegals, etc.
4. What advice would you give yourself as a law student looking back now as a trainee?
I think it is vital to get as much unique experience as possible, so you stand out not only in applications but also during interviews. I think I had about 6 or 7 different jobs (mostly short-term contracts) throughout my time at uni and each of them gave me different skills and experiences I could use during interviews and I think that’s essentially why I was successful for my crown Traineeship. I could swap from talking about my role in the Law Society over the years to my role in the football team or any given job that I could fit around the question asked. Make sure you take advantage of the huge amount of free time while studying, whether that’s volunteering, working, joining societies. Literally anything and everything, just keep bulking up your experiences.
One other thing that helped me a lot was networking. I spoke to three different crown trainees who all checked my second crown application before sending it in, and I am convinced I would have fallen at that hurdle for a second time if I didn’t do that. So reach out to people on LinkedIn within that firm or company and ask them what it is like and if they could maybe check your application. I have found there are very few people in this career that are not willing to help students and trainees. We have all went down this path and know how hard it can be. (on that note feel free to message me on Linkedin with any questions at all).
5. How do you feel about the future of the legal profession? Do you think dealing with clients and the court system itself will become more virtual permanently?
I would say criminal law has been the most publicised area of law in terms of adapting to Covid and what the future holds for it. There were obviously major discussions about removing Jury trials at the start of covid before ultimately deciding to use the Cinema system where all the jurors are at a cinema and watch the trial remotely. My day to day work has absolutely changed as we notice police putting fewer people through as custodies and saving the cell space only for the more serious types of cases. We also rarely see accused people ordered out from prison for hearings now. Often, they will appear by video link which is of course safer for everyone in terms of Covid but makes it more practical and saves resources without detrimentally affecting the procedure. I know for civil cases there have been a lot of telephone hearings and I think that may have started in a few select criminal courts as well. As long as I don’t need to stand in the sitting room with my gown on I think it can only be positive, I’m not sure how I would deal with my daily Amazon delivery coming in the middle of cross-examining an accused.
6. Do you work from home all the time or do you work in the office on occasion? Is there an office rota in place for when you are allowed into the office? Do you appear in court at all?
Essentially if we are not in court we are not in the office. It normally works out as 2/3 days in the office out of 5 but that can vary depending on if people are on holiday or if you have a long trial. We work on a rota system so we normally have a good heads up in terms of what we have coming up the following month and can plan around that. One of the bonuses of being a criminal trainee is that you are in court multiple times a week, I know some civil trainees who only appear once or twice before qualifying. You absolutely don’t need to worry about lacking court experience by the time you qualify with a criminal traineeship.
7. What is your work/life balance like? Do you find that your workload has increased or decreased since the lockdown?
I was in somewhat of a unique position in that I started my second year and moved roles/office about a week before lockdown, so I am probably not very well placed to answer this question. I only really know what it is like post-lockdown. In general, however, it varies. I am an over prepper, so I probably spend far more time than is ever necessary preparing courts and cases. If I know I have a few trials coming up I will put in those extra hours to make sure everything is ready for them but equally so, if I know I don’t have a court for a few days I can focus on the office work and be more flexible with my time. The crown also uses a flexi-time system, so if you have worked long hours a day or week before you can then claim that back by finishing earlier which suits the type of work we do and the working structure we have.
8. What is the culture like where you are currently working?
The culture is good, from what I’ve heard from other trainees at other firms it is completely different as we are sort of in-house but at the same time, it’s such a unique role it can’t really be compared with anything else. Everyone is extremely supportive from other trainees, to non-legal staff to senior managers within the Crown office. You know someone is always at the end of a phone if not in the office that can help you with any questions. The trainee intakes normally vary between 10 – 20 so you have a lot of people at the same stage as you and pre-covid a lot of nights out!
9. In your opinion, what are the most important skills required for a successful career in criminal law?
The ability to get along with people is essential. If you have good interpersonal skills and a good rapport with the defence, the clerk, and essentially the Sheriff then only so much can go wrong in court. If you go in there thinking you are the best lawyer from day one, things will not end well and essentially you will make your job 100x harder than it needs to be. You also need to have sound decision-making skills and sometimes make extremely difficult decisions, so you can’t be the type of person that sits on the fence. I think being competitive is useful as well because although you work with the defence to progress the case as best as possible, it is after all an adversarial system, if you have that competitiveness in you, you will fully prepare your case to ensure you present the best case possible to the court.
10. You are due to fully qualify in March 2021; do you feel ready? Or do you feel that the pandemic has interrupted your training and growth to become a fully qualified solicitor?
If I had answered this question a month or so ago, I would have probably said no. I missed out on around 5/6 months of court experience due to covid. However, this did mean I gained a lot of experience in office work such as marking cases and drafting warrants. Since then I have had a lot of court experience including Sheriff trials so I think I have (just about) enough experience to say I am ready….Although I am sure a lot will crop up that I will be running to my colleagues for advice with!
11. How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Enthusiastic, relaxed, and thorough.
12. Who was your role model growing up and why?
I absolutely loved my football when growing up (and still do), so when thinking about who I looked up to at the time I think of the likes of Craig Gordon the current Hearts goalkeeper as he was from the same part of Edinburgh as me. At that time, it was in the sense that I wanted to play professional football, which of course never happened but I think I always admired football player’s work ethic in general. They train every day to perform at the highest standard they can. They also know their strengths and weaknesses inside out and fully analyse their opponents. When considering it now, it is not a million miles away from analysing legal cases, working out the strengths and weakness of the case and pre-empting what the other party will do, then preparing as best as you can so when it comes to trial you can say I absolutely gave it my all no matter the result of the case.
13. What is your proudest achievement?
Surviving 6 years of studying after not doing well in school. I didn’t quite have the cliché of teachers telling me “you’ll never be a lawyer” but I knew myself I wasn’t the most academically gifted which made getting through all those years of studying that bit more satisfying.
14. If you could travel anywhere right now, where would you go and why?
We go on a family holiday every couple of years to Lanzarote and there is a great bar right on the beach that does pints of Dorada beer in Frozen pint glasses. I can nearly taste it thinking of it now! You can sit there and chill out not having to worry about anything at all (apart from the hangover the next day).
15. If you were going to a deserted island, but all your human needs—such as food and water—were taken care of, what three items would you want to have with you and why?
A tent, a Knife, and a Volleyball called Wilson. I am useless at anything DIY-ish so luckily if there are food and water then that’s them dealt with. I wouldn’t be able to make shelter so hopefully the tent is good quality, a knife so I could pretend I knew what I was doing when I got rescued and every desert island need’s a Wilson, I’m pretty sure it’s the law.
16. What is your favourite pastime/hobby you like to do in your spare time?
I am still lucky enough to be playing football at a decent standard. So that provides focus out with work and keeps me fit…ish. It’s only in the past few weeks when our league was stopped I realised how much it helped me get through stressful times.
17. What Television series are you watching at the moment?
We have just finished Handmaid’s Tale after my other half tried to convince me for months to watch it. It’s brilliant, think our record was 8 episodes in one day….the joys of having nothing else to do in Lockdown!
18. If you won the lottery, what would be your first purchase and why?
A bar in Spain. I probably wouldn’t even open it for the public but just keep it for my own personal use!
19. If not law, what other career would you be interested in pursuing and why?
Throughout Uni I ran my own marketing and events company. I think if law had not worked out, I would have gone down that route full-time. I sometimes wonder what would have happened, but I can’t see myself doing anything else now. I loved organising events and when you saw all your efforts pay off on the night and hundreds of people enjoying and experiencing your idea, it was a fantastic feeling.
20. If you could write a book/film about your life, what would the title be and why?
The imposter – I still sometimes wonder when I am standing up in court with my gown on if I am dreaming and how did I actually get here….I am then quickly brought back to earth by the sheriff asking me a question and me panicking about the answer.
Interviewed by Sean Doig (Editor-in-Chief 2020/21). We would like to thank Connor Muir for volunteering time out of his busy schedule to participate in the interview for the Law Review. If you would like to participate in an interview with the Law Review, please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org