University: University of Sheffield
Personal injury (PI) law falls under the law of tort. It involves civil law cases brought to obtain compensation for injuries sustained, to restore the injured person to the position they would have been in had the injury not happened. The subject matter varies considerably and can range from controversial, high-profile disasters to road traffic accidents to health and safety cases. A related specialised practice area of PI law is clinical negligence, which involves injuries suffered during medical procedures.
With almost 25 years’ experience in the Irwin Mitchell PI team, Francesca Mayes has witnessed many changes both in the field and at the firm. “When I was a trainee, I did not even have a computer,” she laughs, “and I shared a telephone! Not only do I have a computer now, I have two screens”. Besides advancements in technology, the world of PI is also experiencing a great deal of legal reform. “Anyone interested in PI should be aware of the upcoming changes to the discount rate – particularly for catastrophic injury claims – and the fixed cost reform,” she advises. “I think those are the two key issues at the moment.”
Yet against this evolving backdrop, one thing has remained constant: her passion for the role. “I knew early on that I wanted to do PI work,” she recalls. “The Irwin Mitchell training contract was appealing because it offered the opportunity to do lots of different things. I did PI work, medical negligence work, commercial litigation and corporate. After that, I knew I had made the right decision.”
“Helping people in the way that I do and being able to form close working relationships with them is the thing that really excites me about my work. We fight very hard to put a comprehensive package of care and rehabilitation in place early and help families to get their lives back on track"
The structure of the training contract was not the only thing that drew Fran to the firm. “I remember meeting the graduate recruitment team and instantly connecting with them,” she reminisces. “I thought ‘that is the sort of firm I want to work for!’” And after all these years, her reasons for staying are clear. “In my eyes, it is the best firm in the country for the work that I do,” she states. “I have been able to pursue all my career ambitions here. There has been no reason for me to go anywhere else.”
Indeed, these ambitions have led Fran on a dazzling journey from trainee to lead partner of the PI and medical negligence teams in Newcastle – an office which she established with a colleague 16 years ago, before making associate. It comes as no surprise, then, that her day-to-day role has changed considerably over time. “As a trainee, you have to work very hard on time-consuming tasks,” she admits. “As a partner, I have more responsibility for supervising others and dealing with work at a higher level.” With so many tasks to focus on, Fran has three key tips for managing a busy workload. “You have to keep a well-organised diary and be able to delegate, and you also have to support the people on your team, so that they can develop their skills and in turn support you and the business.”
Fighting the good fight
Supporting people is at the heart of her practice. “I specialise in PI work on behalf of individuals who have been injured in different types of accident, where they have sustained a serious brain or spinal cord injury,” she explains. “Their lives have been completely changed by their accident and it is my role, together with my team, to pursue their claims for compensation. As part of that, we help people to rebuild their lives.”
For Fran, helping those in need is the most rewarding aspect of her role. “Helping people in the way that I do and being able to form close working relationships with them is the thing that really excites me about my work,” she continues. “We fight very hard to get people’s payments at an early stage. This way, we can put a comprehensive package of care and rehabilitation in place early and help families to get their lives back on track.”
One recent example of this has been particularly memorable for Fran. Working with a client who suffered serious injuries after being involved in a car accident at only 18 months’ old, the team was able to obtain a number of early payments, which have contributed to much-needed equipment and building her a new home – before the case has even finished. “Lots of our cases are like that,” she states, “but this has been a particular highlight. Her family was in a very difficult situation, so to be able to make such a difference so quickly has been amazing.”
Making the most of every opportunity
Naturally, forming close relationships with people is a key element of the job. “It is important that our solicitors are able to interact with people from all areas of the community,” she reflects. “My advice for anyone considering a career in PI is to get out and about and do a bit of work in the community before you start.” Whether through a school programme or a local organisation, community involvement offers invaluable experience. “There is a big, wide world out there and it is important to know a bit about it before you enter the world of PI,” Fran insists. “Lots of universities offer legal clinics where students can get involved with offering legal advice to members of the public and there are lots of community and citizenship projects that young people can get involved with through schools as well.”
Making the most of these opportunities can help to develop the inter-personal skills that have been essential to Fran’s success not just in the field of PI, but as a solicitor in general. “You have to be able to connect with people in order to win new business,” she urges. “Whether it is in the field of PI or in the corporate world, you need to build those links to assure people that you are the best lawyer to help with their legal service needs.”
This approachability extends beyond clients, too. Working collaboratively with colleagues and building a network outside the firm are just as important. However, these skills do not come naturally to everyone. “One of the things that I find most challenging is dealing with people who do not want to work collaboratively,” she admits. In those situations, being flexible is essential. “It is important to find a style of communication that fits between you and the person you are working with,” she advises. “You have to appreciate that not everybody might want to work in the same way as you”.
In fact, flexibility has been a guiding principle for Fran. “One of the things that you learn in the course of your career is that you have to look for opportunities,” she states. Moving to Newcastle to establish what is now a hugely successful office has enabled her to fulfil many goals, but it has not been without difficulties. “If an opportunity comes along, you have to think flexibly,” she confides. “You have to think ‘is that something I could do and something that I should go for?’. If the answer is yes, you may have to work hard to make it happen.” For Fran, this is key. “Opportunities do not just happen, you have to make them for yourself, and sometimes that requires investing a lot of time and commitment into your career.”
“Be true to yourself”
In truth, this also requires passion for the role – which Fran has in abundance. “You have to be true to yourself and think about what it is that you find interesting,” she encourages. “Everyone is different, so my advice would be to research and pick the area of law that you might be interested in wisely, because whichever area you practice in, you are going to be doing it for a long time.”