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Meet the lawyer

Tom Whittaker

Tom Whittaker

University: University of Birmingham
Degree: History, LLB for graduates
Year of qualification: 2014
Position: Associate/solicitor advocate
Department: Dispute resolution

What attracted you to a career in law?

The honest answer is that I fell into it a bit by accident. The answer with hindsight is that the analytical nature of a career in law was attractive to me – you’re trying to make sense of complicated, difficult legal and factual matters and then trying to explain them in a useful way.

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

I was chair of the University of Birmingham debating society and we were sponsored by Allen & Overy. Having attended one of their events I was asked by a firm representative whether I would be applying and instinctively said “yes”. One thing led to another and they accepted me.

How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?

I had no legal work experience. Experience in other industries is valuable and can help you to identify what you do and don’t enjoy. For example, following my experience with KPMG’s private client tax team in Birmingham I knew I did not want to be a private client tax accountant.

Having had a range of part-time jobs also improved my ability to be flexible to whatever work I was doing. Being a solicitor requires you to engage with clients, colleagues and third parties, and the nature and range of work means you will work with people from all backgrounds. You need to be able to adapt your approach depending on who you’re talking with and the work you’re doing.

What do you think made your application successful?

I don’t remember the application, but have good memories of the interview. Putting my debating skills into practice really helped. I broke down issues to distinct points and applied a basic structure to my responses (ie, make your point, explain it, give an example to support it and link it back to the question at the end). Whenever you’re answering a question always link it back at the end as a reminder to the reader/interviewer that you have answered it. I also knew how to signpost what I was going to talk about and so delivered the content in a structured way.

Which departments did you train in?

Commercial litigation, banking (leveraged finance), corporate M&A and then I went on a secondment to Heathrow as the corporate secondee.

What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?

The more hands-on practical experience you get, the better. You can draw on that experience in future.

Trainees should be proactive in looking for opportunities – for example, expressing an interest in an area of law or sector, suggesting ideas for a publication, or asking a colleague whether they want to collaborate on something. They are all really good ways to find opportunities.

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

Along with being a commercial litigator, the area I am currently developing is to become a disclosure lawyer – potentially akin to how you’d have a costs lawyer. Disclosure is an area which is complex and for all sorts of disputes is incredibly important. It is all about finding, understanding and deploying evidence, and nowadays, more so, that evidence is going to be electronic, so you’re also likely to have technical issues with it.

A disclosure practice can be broken down into three areas: advising on the law, the technology and the practice of disclosure.

Law of disclosure is primarily the civil procedure rules, especially with the new disclosure pilot scheme. I’ll often assist colleagues on discrete questions of the law on disclosure and what it means in practice. In terms of the technology, it’s about understanding the specialist tools available, the underlying artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the different data types and issues that might arise from those. Finally, the practice of disclosure comes down to how you go about running disclosure projects.

On a normal day as a commercial litigator, I am running cases, including all aspects of a dispute. Alternatively, I could be running the disclosure part of a very large matter which, given its size and complexity, requires one dedicated lawyer. You’ll also have some types of case that are disclosure led – for example, investigations or early case assessments – where I’ll lead.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

I most enjoy solving problems. For example, a client is concerned that they may be facing litigation and want to understand what risks they face. They may know that something happened that shouldn’t have but they may also be concerned about of what they’re unaware. You may need to consider whether to interview potential witnesses or analyse the client’s data. You then need to find how to explain that analysis to the client in an understandable and useful way, along with the potential next steps.

The least enjoyable part is the gap between hype and reality in AI. Although we hear lots about the brilliance of AI or other platforms that are sold in a way that makes you think your work will become easier, the volume and complexity of the data means the work can still be complex, intensive and time consuming.

However much AI improves in the coming years, we still need human input to understand the law and apply it in practice, knowing how the technology can (and cannot) assist.

AI will be of particular interest in case law in the coming years, too. There are issues around how you can explain AI and its decisions. Liability regimes and regulations need to change, and the case law on who is liable when AI goes wrong is likely to develop. So perhaps one thing to consider for future lawyers, is that if they have an area of interest like that start thinking about it now. Look at the case law and what legal issues arise – these are really good things to talk about to show enthusiasm and engagement.

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?         

If you have a genuine interest, you are given scope to run with it – for example, a lot of my work now revolves around disclosure, data analysis and investigations. This means that my work spans sectors more so than some others, which is a good thing as you also get a range of experience which you can draw upon.

The firm saw that I enjoyed it so let me run with it. I have now been able to take industry accreditation for a couple of the main technologies we use: I am the point of contact for the disclosure pilot scheme; and I am leading a team that can also advise on the law, technology and practice of disclosure.

What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?

You must strike a balance between doing well in your degree and getting a breadth of experience, for example getting involved with things like debating, mooting or a society. Such experience will mean you have more to draw upon in terms of who you’ve worked with and the challenges you’ve faced.

What is the work-life balance like at your firm? How often do you have late nights/work at weekends?

Overall it’s really good. The nature of our work, in particular with court deadlines, means that it can sometimes be busier than others.

Describe the firm in three words.

Collaborative, leading, friendly.

Where is your dream holiday destination?

Iceland!