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Legal matters: understanding contentious and non-contentious work

Legal matters: understanding contentious and non-contentious work

Neide Lemos


Reading time: three minutes

Contentious (litigation)

Contentious legal work relates to disputes occurring between two or more parties.

The work typically involves:

  • assessing prospects of settling disputes;
  • preparing court bundles;
  • organising counsel; and
  • drafting witness statements.

Nowadays, as most disputes can be settled out of court (either by mediation, arbitration or exchange of written offers of settlement), trainees can expect to get involved in the negotiations and settlement agreements.

As such, non-contentious work involves close reading and legal analysis of your client’s case.

For example:

  • Criminal Law;
  • Employment;
  • Personal Injury;
  • Family Law; and
  • Civil and Commercial Litigation (including Construction).

Non-contentious (transactions)

Non-contentious legal work relates to deal and transactions matters based on achieving an objective for a single party. Whilst there is also an element of negotiating in non-contentious work, it is often deal oriented. The non-contentious side involves drafting contracts and a mix of advisory work. Of course, there is some overlap, non-contentious areas of law such as wills and probate have contentious aspects.

For example, contested will disputes related to the validity or interpretation of the deceased’s last will and testament. An employment seat often has a good mix of contentious and non-contentious legal work where you can find yourself working on disputes related to dismissals and harassment and then providing clients with short and straightforward advice.

For example:

  • Conveyancing/Property;
  • Corporate; and
  • Wills and Probate.

What type of person will suit contentious work?

For contentious work, resilience is a MUST. As the work is extended over a long period, you need to sustain working on the same matter. Often people think all contentious lawyers spend their time handling or defending claims in court.

However, due to the cost and preservation of relationships, settlements are often reached outside of court. As such, contentious work is subject to rapid changes and development. The ability to apply and analyse legal and technical principles during times of high pressure is a necessity for all litigators.

What type of person will suit non-contentious works?

Non-contentious work is generally focused on shorter, regular instructions. There tends to be a greater level of responsibility and client contact. If you enjoy talking to clients daily and supporting them with their general queries, you may be leaning towards non-contentious work.

Don’t be put off applying for a contentious seat, even if the above doesn’t sound like you. Most firms don’t just choose you based on the type of person you are. The seat-rotations will help you decide which type of law is for you, during your training contract

Why should I care?

As an aspiring lawyer, you need to understand the difference between contentious and non-contentious. Before the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), it was a requirement that those undertaking a training contract via the Legal Practice Course route need to complete a mix of contentious and non-contentious seats. The recognised training period with the SQE route can include a two-year long period in a contentious or non-contentious seat.

My experiences of both contentious and non-contentious law have taught me that it’s ok not to know exactly which type of lawyer you want to be and that you can change your mind.

Having a flexible approach to both types of legal work will shape you into a more well-rounded lawyer.