University: Lancaster University
Degree: European Legal studies with German
Clinical or medical negligence lawyers advise in relation to instances of injury or death arising from incorrect or sub-standard medical treatment or diagnosis. Firms typically represent either claimants (usually one at a time, occasionally groups of similar claimants harmed in the same way or by the same health practitioner) or defendants (eg, the NHS, private medical practitioners and healthcare providers). This area of practice can at times be heart-wrenchingly sad; for example, cases relating to life-long serious injury caused by poor care during birth. It can bring the practitioner intense satisfaction when a client is compensated sufficiently to secure the care that they’ll need to improve their quality of life and give their family peace of mind that they have the resources to fund their needs for the rest of their life. Healthcare providers require a broad spectrum of advice on everything from best practice in patient care to life-or-death decisions regarding individuals receiving critical care.
It’s unlikely that you’re an avid watcher of late 1980s legal dramas or, indeed, if you are, that they’ve inspired you to embark on a career in law! But, for Caroline Klage, the popular TV series LA Law did just that: “I wanted to be Grace Van Owen. She was this really glamorous attorney who was always fighting on behalf of people in life-changing situations, and I sort of wanted to do that more than anything else.” Of course, LA Law isn’t what’s kept Caroline in the legal profession for over 20 years; instead, the people-facing, collaborative and empathetic aspects of the law saw Caroline progress through the profession until she became a partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp LLP (BBK) where she now leads a 20-person team specialising in child brain injury.
When reflecting on her time as a trainee, Caroline explains the upside of training at a smaller firm, as she did in Ipswich, following her undergraduate degree at Lancaster University, master’s degree at the University of Nottingham and Legal Practice Course at The University of Law, then the College of Law. She says: “Everything was on our doorstep – we had a really reasonable sociable life as trainees and were a 10-minute walk from the firm.” Caroline has been a partner at BBK since 2006 and has seen many more intimate cohorts of aspiring solicitors qualify into various teams across the firm. Despite laughing at her self-professed lack of an “intellectual” answer to why she became a solicitor, Caroline says: “You don’t have to conform to some kind of stereotype. I think as long as you’re kind and polite, you can just be yourself.”
While working in such a specialised practice area is perhaps not the ‘norm’ for most solicitors, Caroline found that her current role naturally emerged out of her existing work. “I started as a personal injury solicitor before doing some medical negligence work. Then, one day, I looked at my caseload and realised most of my clients were children. The other cases I was involved in were run by my colleagues and I was just supervising. I thought, almost by natural selection, I’m just choosing to do cases involving children and I love it.”
As her practice has evolved, so has her team. Caroline now leads a 20-person strong team that focuses on child brain injury, which is part of the wider clinical negligence practice area. At the heart of her work are the clients and their families and she’s passionate about ensuring that their needs are at the very centre of any case the team works on. Caroline strives for this in her everyday practice: “Specialising in working for children with brain injuries means we deliver the best possible service to our clients because that’s all we do, day in and day out.” When it comes to working in a practice area like clinical negligence, the ability to connect with people is also key. Caroline highlights that “every client and every family are different” and adds that “it’s about getting to know them and their needs and what it is that they need to make their lives better”.
Belonging to a team that focuses on such a specific area of law may give the illusion that this is a narrow practice area, which is absolutely not the case. Caroline “represent[s] children who’ve suffered brain injuries either as a result of clinical negligence; meaning something may have gone wrong when they were born or in an operation, or they have a condition that was undiagnosed/misdiagnosed that’s led to a brain injury”, a list that’s by no means exhaustive.
“And then there’s my team, the child brain injury team. We work in teams on our cases and it’s such a joy being able to work with other people.”
The nature of clinical negligence means that those who work in this area have to work with a variety of stakeholders, including medical professionals and “the treating professionals on the ground, so the carers and the case managers” who Caroline adds are “always wonderful people”. For her, working with such a variety of people is the thing she most enjoys about her job – from the professionals on the ground, to the “experts and barristers who help us to prove the claim and evidence exactly what the client’s needs are to the court”.
Teamwork is the foundation of what Caroline does in her day-to-day role and curating a team with this specialist knowledge, as Caroline touches on above, allows her team to gain the best possible outcome for their clients. To this end, she says: “What we can’t do sadly is turn the clock back, but we can try to secure enough compensation for them to make sure their needs will always be met in the future and that they can flourish post-injury.”
Above all, Caroline is passionate about what she does and when asked about her career highlights to date, her answer reveals why. She begins: “There are a number of highlights I can think of and they all centre around achieving strong results for clients, where they have really complex needs that can’t be met by a statutory provision or the NHS.” Support from teams like the child brain injury team at BBK is vital. For some, legal action is the only way Caroline’s clients can secure the money necessary for the medical assistance they need. Clinical negligence settlements allow people to gain the necessary compensation for somebody to not just survive but to “live their life to the fullest”, something everybody deserves.
The money secured in these settlements isn’t like “winning the lottery”– as Caroline sometimes hears – but a genuine chance for children with brain injuries to enjoy and participate in life in a way they may not have been able to before. A case from Caroline’s career illustrates just this: “I was really excited about one case where we secured our client funds for a swimming pool because she has strong sensory needs and it’s quite hard for her to focus unless those needs are met. The pressure of water really calms her down so she is able to engage in other therapies too, including speech and language or physiotherapy. She also just loves being in water – it’s a huge pleasure for her.”
As a solicitor, Caroline recognises that there are sometimes cases she can’t win, despite the tragic circumstances that may have led somebody to contact her. She explains that “the hardest” part of her job “is when we have to say I’m sorry we can’t take this any further”.
If you want to work and succeed in a practice area like Caroline’s, she says “you have to be bright, get on with people and understand people. You need to be able to listen and be patient”. Naturally, these are skills that apply to all practice areas but to work in clinical negligence, Caroline is keen to emphasise that you must be “really passionate about what we do” to succeed.
With that in mind, knowing whether a given area of law is for you is something that requires research and real-life experience. “It’s quite difficult to know what you want to specialise in until you’ve tried it out,” Caroline explains. This doesn’t necessarily mean the experience you gain has to be explicit to law, as Caroline suggests, “you could consider helping charities that support children with child brain injuries, volunteering at a local school that helps children with special educational needs or helping out at inclusive clubs”. These experiences will help you determine whether working in clinical negligence, specifically child brain injury, is for you.
On a more general note, Caroline advises all students to make the most of their non-legal experience, whether it’s working in hospitality, retail, volunteering or something else. For Caroline, her part-time jobs taught her “how to get on with different people” – a key skill for any aspiring solicitor.
So, although Caroline may not have entered the law with a set purpose – now namely collaboration, vocation and building relationships – she remains “grateful for those characters [in LA Law] because they led me to a career I really enjoy and I feel blessed to do.”