University: University of Bristol
Undergraduate degree: Law
Commercial lawyers help businesses trade and work on a wide range of commercial agreements dealing with the manufacture, sale, supply and distribution of goods and services, as well as identifying and establishing the best routes to market, which could be via an agency, distribution or franchise model. Recently, there has been increased focus on e-commerce, online sales and software agreements. The work involves advising clients on the best trade arrangements, drafting, negotiating and signing off contracts, assisting with the day-to-day running of commercial business and advising on new products. Commercial law is often a key component in other projects and touches many areas of law, making it a highly varied legal arena.
Before starting her training contract, Samantha Holland was not set on becoming a litigator, which she put down partly to a lack of confidence. However, her training contract at Cartwrights confirmed otherwise: “Litigation made sense to me. I like the fact that there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer.”
Now a commercial litigation partner at Gowling WLG, Samantha looks back on her interesting route into the legal profession, which began when she was 17. A year ahead in her studies, she went to the University of Bristol to study law before completing her LPC at the College of Law, Chester. Without a training contract following her LPC, she “ended up working on a public enquiry with the North Wales Child Abuse Tribunal as an assistant to the solicitor of the tribunal”.
She secured a training contract in 1998, three years after finishing her LPC, at medium-sized firm Cartwrights in Bristol. Samantha then explored alternative opportunities before qualifying as a solicitor with Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co, now Gowling WLG.
Samantha enjoyed her training contract and found the experience at a smaller firm “really hands-on. “During my seat in the insurance litigation team, for example, I had my own caseload of 30 to 40 files that ran from beginning to end – this gave me insight into the realities of the job.”
Partially due to her experience as a trainee, Samantha established an expertise in insurance and when she made the transition to qualify at Gowling, she did so into the professional indemnity team where she conducted “professional negligence work, often for the insurers, as well as looking at policy coverage issues,” which she has since continued to build on.
To dispute or not dispute
As Samantha qualified and her work evolved, Gowling itself grew “and became more international. I am doing much larger, more complicated disputes for a broader range of clients, including international clients, which is both interesting and higher value,” she explains. Now her role involves helping clients “wherever possible to avoid a dispute, but in the event that a dispute arises, we help them to resolve it as quickly and cost effectively as possible”. Meanwhile, her day-to-day work “can be anything from receiving a large contract from a commercial colleague and looking through the dispute resolution clause or liability provisions to see whether it works from a litigation perspective in the event that the parties end up in a dispute; to a client asking us to review a contract to identify who is in the right and what arguments should be deployed; or a client instructing us to sue another party – in which case, we will take it right from day one to trial if necessary”.
Understanding the commercial issues surrounding the client and its business is critical. “Clients don’t just want lawyers to pick up a dispute and deal with it; they want them to think about what’s coming up and how the business can be managed to mitigate any risks, how things can be conducted more efficiently, and how to innovate and use technology to better manage disputes and legal costs.”
The global pandemic’s impact has resulted in an increased workload: “I am a litigator specialising in insurance, so we are extremely busy with covid-19 insurance claims. Despite the Financial Conduct Authority launching its test case, I still think business will face issues and that disputes with insurers over losses incurred during lockdown will run for several years.”
Women must feel that they can progress – you don’t have to pick between children and a career
In her career so far, Samantha has been involved in several high-profile cases; two of which she considers to be career highlights because they were “large, complex and went to final hearing. One was a dispute between racing driver, Paul di Resta and his former manager, Anthony Hamilton. I also acted for CPC Group in their high-profile dispute with Mark Holyoake.”
A more personal highlight for Samantha, however, was when she made partner in 2017: “To be made partner at Gowling was a source of pride because I believe we do great work. It also validated everything I had worked for.” Getting to this point involved “a lot of hard work and juggling” but she urges law candidates to believe in themselves: “Women must feel that they can progress – you don’t have to pick between children and a career. I made a rule that I would never miss a Nativity play or parents’ evening; however, if I have a hearing then that takes priority. A set of priorities does make things easier.” The long hours, stress and responsibility that come with making decisions in a large dispute are partly what makes her job so exciting. “I don’t think there is anything I don’t like about my job,” she laughs.
Finding a job that suits is at the root of most people’s career aspirations and law firms must take more action to improve diversity so candidates from all backgrounds have this opportunity: “While there is work going into improving diversity in law firms, as a profession we aren’t doing enough quickly enough. Ultimately, firms must represent society around them to improve their decision making and make law a better profession. Law firms must look beyond the traditional recruitment pool.”
Choose the road that’s right for you
Sharing a significant learning point from her journey, Samantha encourages candidates to recognise that the traditional route to qualification is not the sole means by which you can become a solicitor: “You don’t have to study law at university and then go to law school. We want people with a broad range of experience, so do what you love and then what you need to do to become a lawyer.”
She outlines a few essential skills for a commercial litigator: “You must be a good communicator and listener as you will be engaging with different types of people, including clients, opposing parties, experts and witnesses. Be forensic – you will be pulling together factual information and applying the law to it to try to work out what the legal principles are and what the answer should be. Finally, be strategic – consider how to progress your case to achieve the best outcome.”
Candidates can develop these skills by “volunteering at the local Citizens Advice Bureau and getting involved at the local law clinic or law society. If you’re at university, take part in mock trials and mooting to give you a taste of what a career in commercial litigation might be like.”