Think what might happen if you were more proactive at work. If you show more willingness to advance your skills and take on increased responsibility, you will be able to make the most of your role. This will have a mutually beneficial effect, both for you and for the firm you work for.
Say, for example, you were able to take over some of the less involved work from a fee-earner and save them an average of an hour’s billable time per day, enabling them to cost that half hour out elsewhere; you could increase the firm’s gross profit. If a fee earner costs their time out to clients at, say, £200 per hour, this would mean that your firm would gain an additional gross profit of 5 x £200 per week, or £1000. This would amount to £52,000 per annum, minus time for holidays.
In addition, you would have more job satisfaction and, therefore, be much happier in your work. Happier staff = a happier firm = happier clients.
There are areas in all departments of law firms where fee earners can delegate. It makes no sense for fee earners to be doing routine work when they could be more profitably engaged in something that cannot so readily be delegated.
In any court hearing, many solicitors still brief counsel to represent their client but it is something that a litigation secretary is well capable of doing. If you are a litigation secretary in a firm dealing with a defended civil dispute which is set down for hearing, you will be well aware of the ins and outs of the case because you have processed all the letters, memos of attendances, witness statements, statements of case and other documents. You will have even typed out the brief to counsel, so you will be aware of the points that you should specifically take up with counsel. Who better than you, therefore, to be the one who attends the hearing with counsel? This would save a fee-earner time and give you great job satisfaction.
So what would be involved? Well, first of all you would need to make sure that your paperwork is in order. There should be a court bundle of all the relevant documents in the case, as described in the article ‘Preparing a Court Bundle’ in the March update of our online journal.
Next, you should read it through to refresh your mind and make yourself aware of the overall picture of the case. Then you should ask if there is anything in particular that you need to be aware of.
Prior to the day of the hearing, make sure you know where the court is situated. On the day of the hearing, leave in good time and get to the court at least 30 minutes before the hearing is due to start. You will need to find and introduce yourself to counsel, your client and any witnesses.
Most courts have security checks on the doors and do not allow cameras inside. Once inside there are usually quite a few people milling about such as lawyers, the litigants themselves, family and friends. First of all you will need to find the court notice board. It should be conveniently located either in the main entrance lobby or in an adjoining corridor. On this you will find lists of all the cases that are set down to be heard that day. It will display the courtroom in which your case is going to be heard, as well as the name of the presiding Judge.
When you find the name of your case, check to see how far down is it on the list. If it is a complex case estimated to take half a day or more, then it may be the only case on the list for that courtroom. On the other hand, there may be several short cases that will be listed to be heard before yours, and you may be at the end of the list, in which case you may have a long wait. This is one of the reasons why your firm will appreciate you attending court with counsel, as it is going to lose quite a bit of profit if a fee-earner is waiting around.
Next you should locate counsel. There is often a special room for lawyers, so go in and see if they are there; otherwise, they may be waiting in the corridor. Once counsel is located, ask them if everything is all right so far as they are concerned – they may want something done, like something photocopied, or something clarified with the client.
Next, find the court usher and ‘sign in’. The usher will either be standing where the court lists are located or standing outside the particular courtroom. Introduce yourself by saying “I’m with the solicitors acting for the claimant/defendant”. They might ask you for your or your firm’s name. They will also ask you for the name of your counsel and whether they are present. Some courts require you to fill in a very short form with this information but some ushers just make a note of it.
Next, you need to locate your client and introduce them to counsel. It may be that counsel will want a further conference with them. If so, make a brief note in your pad of what counsel asks, the client’s replies and the length of time taken. This will be required in connection with the eventual assessment of costs.
Assisting counsel can involve a number of things. Photocopying extra copies of documents, making telephone calls (it may be that counsel has asked you a question you do not know the answer to and wants you to ask your firm). A further, or expanded, statement may be required from one of the witnesses which you will have to take as it is unprofessional conduct for counsel to interview, or talk to, a witness before they have given their evidence in the witness box.
When the case is called (you will hear the usher call out the case in a loud voice), you will all go into the courtroom, with the exception of any witnesses. They must stay outside the courtroom until they are called in to give evidence.
Follow counsel into the courtroom and you will sit directly behind them. Your client will either sit beside you or directly behind you. Have your notebook and pen to hand and make a note of the time that the case was called. You will be expected to make a note of the case as it goes along. This is where shorthand can be very useful. If you don’t know shorthand, why not take a course on it (it will add to your CPD hours with the Institute). Some systems, like ‘Speedwriting’, are relatively easy to learn. If you don’t have shorthand, however, don’t worry. You will find that the case proceeds fairly slowly because the judge will also be making notes. You are not expected to write everything down; it is only for counsel and your firm to get an overall picture. If you take a break for lunch, make a note of the time.
When the judge enters the courtroom they will bow just before they sit down. Everyone in the courtroom (yourself included) will bow to them in return. At the conclusion of the case the judge will give their judgment and you should make the best note of this possible. Once the case is over, the judge usually thanks counsel for their assistance, rises and bows. Then everyone bows in return and he leaves the courtroom. Make a note of the time it ends.
Your client may be puzzled as to exactly what order was made as judgments are not the easiest things for lay people to follow, so try and explain it to them (or get counsel to explain it to them). Counsel will endorse their brief with details of the order given and will sign it and give it to you.
Telephone your firm, if they have asked you to, and tell them the outcome. If it’s late in the day, ask them whether they want you back in the office or whether you can go home.
If you are interested in attending court and would like to learn more, there is an excellent practical court training programme, which is run by AH Paralegal Training Ltd. Amanda Hamilton, who is the founder of the organisation, also teaches our Legal Secretaries Diploma course in London. Please take a look at their website at www.ahparalegal.co.uk.
We would advise you to take time to visit a court if you have never been to one. The public are allowed access to most court hearings (if there is a case to which the public are not allowed access, there will be a notice outside the courtroom for ‘court in camera’). You can either sit at the back of the court or in a separate public gallery which is present in some courts. If you have any free time, go and sit in on a hearing and listen to what goes on, as a matter of professional interest.
The Institute provides tours of the Royal Courts of Justice in London to members of the Institute. They take place once a month and are free of charge. The tour will give you a good understanding of how courts work and it is an enjoyable day out. Please contact us if you are interested.