Claire Paterson | Clinical Negligence Solicitor at Slater and Gordon
Our next guest is Claire Paterson. Claire is a Solicitor at Slater and Gordon working in the Clinical Negligence department. She specialises in a variety of complex medical negligence claims and additionally has experience in advising clients on personal injury claims, including road traffic accidents, employer’s liability, and public liability claims. Claire began her journey undertaking her LLB with the University of Dundee and then went on to complete her Diploma in Legal Practice at the University of Edinburgh.
Claire has taken part in an honest, humbling interview about her experience of overcoming the anxieties of not securing a traineeship during the Diploma stage. With patience and resilience, she did not quit her dreams of working as a qualified solicitor. This interview is here to prove that no student should give up and should not compare their progression with other students. In addition, Claire has shared her insights from the day-to-day life of a Solicitor at a growing law firm to commercial awareness tips for students.
1. Tell us a bit about your background. What university did you attend? What were your favourite/worst subjects in university? Did you participate in any societies?
I studied my LLB at the University of Dundee and completed my Diploma at the University of Edinburgh.
My favourite subjects were employment law and medical ethics, which were my electives in 3rd and 4th year. My least favourite subjects were probably criminal, evidence, and revenue law.
I wasn’t involved in any societies during my LLB but made up for lost time during my Diploma. I joined the music law society (thankfully I could still hold a tune after 5 years out of a choir), volunteered as a representative on the staff/student committee, and participated in the international client counseling competition.
2. What made you choose to pursue a career in the legal profession? How did you know the area of law you wanted to practice?
I think I always wanted to study law but didn’t admit it to myself until later in high school. I used to be terrified of public speaking so thought I would never be able to stand up in Court. I remember doing a careers skills quiz in my 4th year and being thrilled when solicitor came up as one of the options. I was really good at Business Management and thought I wanted to do business law or what I now know would be an in-house legal role.
3. Do you think enough was done in university to highlight the different career paths available in law or was it mainly the generic areas like commercial or criminal? Do you have any thoughts on how awareness can be improved for students?
During university, I don’t remember there being any push towards any specific practice areas. As a student, I thought everything that wasn’t criminal law was commercial law.
Personally, I don’t remember alternative careers being highlighted. I remember being surprised in 4th year when a classmate of mine went off to do teaching. I think this demonstrates that, at the time, I thought you do your law degree to become a solicitor. I only ever remember accountancy being talked about as an alternative career. It was talked about how valuable your law degree was, but I don’t remember any presentations or focus on here’s a job that would suit those skills or here is a previous student who did just that.
I think it is important for universities to highlight the alternative careers available and to showcase their law students who have gone on to other, equally challenging and rewarding, careers. My advice to students would be to be brave and question yourself, as it is 100% okay if you decide that being a solicitor is not for you. Even if it is, it is good to question yourself and look at all the options available to re-affirm that decision.
4. When applying for traineeships, how did you find the process? Did you already have a lot of legal experience before applying? What made you decide that Slater and Gordon was the firm for you?
I found the process of applying for traineeships tough. I remember spending hours completing an application form and thinking this might be the one, only to get no acknowledgment that I had been unsuccessful, other than it being implied by the passage of time. I felt traineeship applications were an art form that I had not yet mastered. Once I started to get interviews, this was another ball game altogether.
It was disheartening at times, but I would encourage any students to keep going, ask for feedback where you can; ask someone (whether a family member, friend, lecturer, or your university career service) to look over your application forms before sending, do mock interviews or prepare practice answers to common interview questions (a quick search will bring up lots of examples).
I didn’t have a lot of legal experience when applying for traineeships during my LLB and Diploma. I did a summer work experience placement with Pagan Osborne between my 2nd and 3rd year and really enjoyed this. After finishing the Diploma, I secured a summer role with Plexus Law, which ended up lasting until the end of the year.
After this, I found it hard to find another legal role and think employers thought I was a “flight risk” and would leave as soon as I was offered a traineeship. Not one to enjoy being out of work, I took up a role within my local Boots. This was a difficult decision for me, and I remember being disappointed at having graduated with a law degree but having to go back to the same role I had done during the summer months at university. However, this job was great for me. It helped me to rebuild my lost confidence, build my customer service skills and improve working under pressure.
After a year at Boots, I felt I was getting too comfortable and started applying for legal jobs again. I applied for an administrative job at Slater and Gordon, as I was just looking to get any role in a law firm at that time. During the interview, I was offered a Paralegal position instead. I thoroughly enjoyed this role and was definitely thrown into the deep end by taking over the responsibility of a full caseload from a colleague who was going on maternity leave. I learned a lot very quickly and finally acknowledged to myself that I was good at this job. There was always some doubt in my mind that by not having a traineeship by this point it meant I wasn’t meant to be or wouldn’t be good at being a solicitor but I had proved to myself that wasn’t the case.
At the time, in Scotland, Slater and Gordon was a small firm. They had only had one trainee in the past and they didn’t foresee taking on another anytime soon. I, therefore, started applying for traineeships again. In 2017, 4 years after I graduated with my Diploma, I was offered a traineeship with an Edinburgh-based firm. On the back of this Slater and Gordon made a counteroffer as they wanted to keep me with the firm. I now had 2 traineeship offers and faced the hardest decision I have ever had to make. After many pros and cons lists and taking advice from family, colleagues, and a lecturer I had kept in touch with, I chose to stay at Slater and Gordon.
5. What sort of tasks and responsibilities did you undertake during your traineeship? Did you get to work with partners or have any client contact? What seats/practise areas did you undertake?
My traineeship was an extension of my paralegal role, where I had a lot of responsibility already. I started on 01st June 2017, which oddly was a Thursday. I kept my existing caseload and sat at the same desk as I did the day before. The biggest initial change was my email signature, which finally read “Trainee Solicitor”.
As I progressed throughout my traineeship, I began assisting senior fee earners on higher-value cases. I attended consultations with counsel and clients or medical experts, sat in Proofs (trials), and helped with investigations. I had a specialist personal injury traineeship and didn’t do seat rotations. However, during my traineeship, I did gain exposure to new types of claims I had never dealt with before including disease cases, deafness claims, and clinical negligence. I also had an opportunity to assist in a Fatal Accident Enquiry regarding an accident on the Queensferry Crossing. I was given my own files to litigate, and the firm was keen for me to apply for my restricted practicing certificate as early as possible so I could appear in Court.
6. What advice would you give yourself as a law student looking back as a now qualified Solicitor?
My advice to myself as a law student now would be to be open-minded to all practice areas and not to write off any areas or have preconceptions about them. During the LLB you learn more about legal principles and the theory of law, which can often be entirely different in practice. For example, I didn’t think I ever wanted to be a personal injury lawyer but now working in the area I know how interesting it can be and as a result, I have an incredibly fulfilling career and enjoy my job very much.
I would also encourage myself to get involved in societies or committees earlier and to join organisations like SYLA or the TANQ society. I know through my involvement in SYLA how relevant and helpful these events can be and that there are great networking opportunities at these.
Finally, I would also say to myself to use my LinkedIn a lot earlier as this can be an invaluable platform to connect with people you meet at events or learn about upcoming events and find articles or blogs (like this one?) with helpful advice.
7. What does your role as a Solicitor at Slater and Gordon look like day-to-day?
I now work as a solicitor in our clinical negligence department. My job is very interesting but challenging and requires me to understand (or at least know which expert to instruct to understand) medical terms and what went wrong. I manage a caseload of both litigated and non-litigated files, which means balancing court deadlines as well as pushing non-litigated cases forwards. Day-to-day I can be seen investigating claims through requesting medical records, instructing medical experts, or reviewing reports that have come in. I could be writing letters of claim and updating clients on the progress of their case. I can also be seen taking statements or consulting with Counsel.
8. What is the most rewarding part of your role?
The most rewarding part is helping to achieve a settlement for the clients who have suffered injuries through no fault of their own. I also deal with claims on behalf of families who have lost a family member due to negligence and, although nothing I can do can bring their loved one back, it is rewarding to be able to help them find answers to what happened or gain closure to help them to move forwards after such an upsetting event.
9. Do you have the opportunity to partake in any pro bono work in your role? Is pro bono work encouraged/a priority for Slater and Gordon at all?
Although it’s not explicitly pro-bono, our Scottish business acts on a no-win, no-fee basis and help clients from many backgrounds who have suffered injuries that weren’t their fault. The firm supports a number of charities but in Scotland our current nominated charity is Finding Your Feet. They support families who have been affected by amputation or limb absence by organising a range of sporting clubs and other projects to help with both physical and mental wellbeing. As well as fundraising challenges and support we have helped them by connecting them with other solicitors to help with their legal needs.
10. Do you work from home all the time or do you work in the office on occasion? In your opinion, do you think Solicitors should be able to work remotely more often, or do you think Solicitors only work best in the office?
Before the pandemic, I worked in the office 100% of the time. Now, like the majority of people, I have been working at home for the past year. As normality resumes, Slater and Gordon will be adopting a more flexible approach to home/office working and I anticipate my time will be split between the two.
I do miss aspects of working in the office. I find working from home more isolating and miss the quick chats you have with people at the printer or when getting a cup of tea. You can learn so much by just being in the office and overhearing about other cases or listening to the way more experienced solicitors talk on the phone. However, I definitely don’t miss the bus commute or having to leave the house when it is snowing or raining.
11. What is your work/life balance like at Slater and Gordon? Do you find that your workload has increased or decreased since the lockdown?
Work-life balance has always been important at Slater and Gordon and they do encourage you to “make time to live”. I have never felt pressured to stay in the office late at night and there is very much a sense of trust that you will get the job done.
There are areas of our business that have been affected by the pandemic like road traffic accidents and accidents at works as people have not been at work or on the roads. However, although I work in clinical negligence my caseload has continued to grow despite the pandemic.
12. What is the firm culture like where you are currently working? Do you see yourself working at Slater and Gordon for the foreseeable future?
We are a close team in Scotland and everyone is very approachable. When I joined in 2015 there were less than 10 of us but the team has doubled since then, with 4 new recruits in the last 6 months. It has been great to be part of the firm growing and this has increased the bond we all have, as we have all contributed as a team to the success of the firm. There is no fear culture in the firm either and I have never felt too scared to admit a mistake or ask for help. We have continued to run socials throughout the year on a Friday afternoon and have done quizzes, Pictionary, and gin tasting. The culture is definitely one of the things that keeps me with the firm and would be a high priority on my list if I was ever looking to change roles.
13. With mental health awareness becoming more of a priority for law students and subsequently law firms; do you think there is an element of acceptance and adequate help at Slater and Gordon for their employees?
I think there has always been an acceptance of mental health awareness, but I have been particularly impressed by the way that Slater and Gordon has risen to respond to the mental health challenges we have faced whilst working from home. It was difficult to know when this all started how firms would respond to the pandemic. Slater and Gordon have responded to this proactively by introducing weekly live virtual yoga classes, boot camps, and mindfulness sessions and arranging for people to come in to run these so it’s more interactive. There is also a dedicated wellbeing internet page with help and advice and a list of all the things we can get involved in. My team has had daily morning meetings to keep in touch with each other and run team socials to help improve wellbeing. The Partner in the office also does regular call rounds to everyone to check in on a one-to-one basis to see how everyone is managing home working.
14. In your opinion, what are the most important skills required for a successful career as a Solicitor?
I think the most important skills needed are good organisation skills in order to not only manage deadlines but also to help you manage client expectations. You also need good interpersonal skills to help you build trust with your clients to help guide them to achieve the best outcome for their case. You also need to be honest and act with integrity. It is not a lie that this is a small world, and you will often find yourself coming up against the same solicitors. It is important to act in good faith and to build a rapport with them, after all, we are all just here to do a job.
15. How do you feel about the future of the legal profession? Do you think dealing with clients will become more virtual permanently?
I have found that during the pandemic clients have been responding a lot faster and are looking for updates more quickly. I think this will only continue, as with technology at our fingertips we all want information instantly nowadays. I foresee more use of online portals where clients can view and manage the stage of their case becoming a bigger thing. I do think virtual meetings have had their benefits, but I also think that face-to-face meetings do have their place particularly if you are discussing sensitive matters. I am interested to see how the pandemic affects my practice area and whether there will be a downturn in claims for a while or whether the impact of other treatments being delayed due to coronavirus will have the opposite effect.
16. How do you stay commercially aware with current events and what would you recommend for students?
To stay commercially aware, I will check Scottish Legal News and my LinkedIn daily for any events, news articles, or updates that catch my eye. My firm organises regular internal training sessions, but I also keep an eye out for any other CPD events that might be of interest to me. I also deliver a monthly case update at my team meeting and do research for this using Westlaw or save cases I have seen in news articles that I can report back on.
My advice to students would be to ensure you sign up to organisations like SYLA and TANQ as they run free CPD and networking events throughout the year aimed at students and new lawyers. Otherwise, I would make sure you subscribe to Scottish Legal News to get their daily email update. Finally, check the Law Society of Scotland, WS Society, and Advocates stables websites regularly as they also have some really good CPD events which can be free or discounted for students.
17. How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Hardworking, friendly, and ambitious.
18. What is your proudest achievement?
I think being admitted as a solicitor is my proudest achievement to date, given the journey outlined above it was a great feeling to finally reach that goal after all the hard work.
19. What is your favourite pastime/hobby you like to do in your spare time? What Television series are you watching at the moment?
Outside of work, one of my favourite things to do is gym classes like Step and Body Pump. Due to the pandemic, this has been replaced with Body Combat and Attack in my living room. I also love traveling and I have explored the East and West Coast of America. I had planned to visit Canada last September, but this was put off and it is unclear if this will happen this year.
At the moment I am re-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine as it’s easy to watch. I recently watched the Flight Attendant and would highly recommend it to anyone who has not watched the Queen’s Gambit to give it a go.
20. If you could write a book/film about your life, what would the title be and why?
As a fan of musicals, I would need to borrow the title of a song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: “The Roses of Success”. I think the lyrics resonate with the journey it’s taken me to reach the point I am at.
Interviewed by Sean Doig (Editor-in-Chief 2020/21). We would like to thank Claire Paterson for taking the time to participate in the interview to share her experience for the Law Review. You can find out more about Claire, her career highlights, and reviews on the Slater and Gordon website here.
If you would like to participate in an interview with the Law Review, please do not hesitate to contact us at email@example.com.