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Solicitors' practice areas

Professional negligence

Jennifer Allum

Walker Morris LLP

University: University of Leeds
Degree: Law

Professional services providers - solicitors, barristers, surveyors, accountants, independent financial advisers, insurance brokers, architects, engineers and others - all run the risk of giving negligent advice to clients. A solicitor may make a mistake in their review of a property's legal title, while a surveyor may provide an overvaluation to a mortgage lender or house buyer. Architects sometimes miscalculate when drawing up plans and financial advisers have been known to recommend the wrong products. Clients seeking redress can take some comfort from the fact that professionals carry insurance for just these situations, but usually there's a legal battle to be had before compensation is paid. Lawyers specialising in professional negligence disputes will commonly represent either insurance companies or claimants, and the claims they handle range from the relatively low-value to the absolutely enormous, particularly when related to the construction of large buildings. When Wembley Stadium was built, for example, it led to a raft of negligence claims. See also Clinical law.

The ever-morose Morrissey may have bemoaned "the Leeds side streets that you slip down", while jealous fans from other cities slandered "dirty Leeds United" during the club’s halcyon days of success, but the northern city actually boasts some fine (clean) architecture, good night life and a thriving legal scene, not to mention a great university. All these factors influenced Jennifer Allum’s decision to do her degree there, while law was a solid choice of subject for someone still not sure of her ultimate career path. "I love Leeds, while I knew that law would be a robust degree for a range of career options that I could decide on at a later date," she explains.

Nonetheless, the first couple of years of study failed to grab Jennifer. "At first I didn’t really enjoy the dry, theoretical side of the subject," she says. "It was only in the final year of my degree that I realised that the practical application of this knowledge out in the real world was much more interesting and enjoyable than sitting in lecture theatres.

Now appreciating the appeal of law as a career rather than an academic subject, Jennifer began to pursue a career as a solicitor in earnest - a path she chose for a number of reasons. "Financial considerations played a part in my decision to pursue the solicitor route over the Bar," she explains. "I knew it would be very difficult to get funding for the BPTC - which was then called the BVC - and I couldn’t afford to pay the course fees myself at the time. I was also very conscious of how competitive it would be to get pupillage." She continues: "A career as a solicitor seemed more accessible, while the fact that solicitors are paid a salary meant that it was a more secure option than the self-employed status of a barrister. I’m also a very people-oriented person, so the team-based nature of working as a solicitor was attractive.

Having identified the route that she wanted to take, Jennifer began exploring potential firms at which to apply for a training contract. "I knew upon graduating that I wanted to stay in Leeds, which is a fantastic city that is also the strongest city for law in the country outside of London," she says. "I knew someone who worked at Walker Morris and she was full of praise for the firm, so I researched it further online and went on to secure a vac scheme here. I was offered a training contract off the back of that experience and was delighted to accept.

However, Jennifer did not begin her training contract straight away after completing the LPC. "I was due to start my training contract in 2009, but was deferred for a year along with half of my intake as a result of the economic downturn," she explains. "It was a blow at the time, but in hindsight it worked out well, because otherwise I would have spent the first year of my training contract without enough work to really help me develop as a lawyer. I also got some time to travel in the interim period, which was great.

Thankfully, the wait proved worthwhile. "My overall experience of the training contract was really good," says Jennifer. "Walker Morris operates a six-seat system as opposed to the usual four seats, which we bang on about all the time in our recruitment literature! But having compared my experiences with trainees at other firms doing four seats, I would say that the six-seat system makes for a better training experience. You get a much broader experience of the firm and of different practice areas; so many elements of law are pervasive and I think a wider base of experience has improved me as a commercial lawyer, as I can better understand where my work fits in with other departments.

In terms of the types of work that Jennifer was exposed to, litigation proved to be the most enjoyable. "I like being busy and was given high-quality work to do," she says. "As a trainee I ran my own files - under supervision of course - and also did a lot of drafting. My supervisors were keen to get me fully involved, partly because their teams were so busy. My transactional seats were slightly different - possibly a reflection of the wider economic climate during the time that I was training.

After finishing her training contract working on litigation matters in the firm’s overarching real estate and banking litigation department, Jennifer qualified into banking litigation, where professional negligence claims form a large part of her work. "The professional negligence claims that I work on arise out of anything and everything to do with mortgages," she explains. "I act for a number of big-name lenders in the United Kingdom in cases where they have suffered a loss as a result of advancing mortgage funds for whatever reason, whether that loss is almost immediate or 10 years down the line after their security has been realised. My clients are always claimants and my work often concerns claims against solicitors, valuers and other third-party professionals, as well as statutory indemnity funds like the Land Registry indemnity fund.

Jennifer gets a lot of enjoyment and job satisfaction out of her career. "Professional negligence is a really interesting area," she says. "Although it sounds quite niche, the areas of law that it touches on are quite broad and pervasive - such as breach of contract, tortious duties of care, breach of trust and so on. Some cases also involve the unravelling of fraud, which can be absolutely fascinating. On a personal basis, running cases from start to finish and ultimately negotiating settlements with the other side is really rewarding. I recovered nearly half a million pounds for one client in a case where we thought we had no chance, but through hard work and tenacity ended up with a good result. Attending mediation is also always fantastic, while I love managing a caseload of files which all involve different elements. Litigation can be quite stressful, but you just have to get your head down and be efficient with your time. Thankfully, that’s one great thing about Walker Morris - there’s no culture of face time here. When things are busy, we have our share of late finishes, but if you’ve done your work, you can go home - there’s no need to stay at your desk until midnight just for the sake of showing off.

Looking more broadly, the property market and the professional negligence lawyers working within it are approaching an important period. "The housing market is subject to peaks and troughs and, at the moment, we are seeing the amount of professional negligence cases falling in number," explains Jennifer. "This is because the market fell steeply during the financial crisis of 2007-08, so a lot of the claims which resulted from the mortgage lending during that time are coming up to the expiry of their six-year limitation period. However, the market is back on the up, banks are starting to lend again and will always need professionals such as surveyors and conveyancing solicitors to advise them. We're confident about the way things are looking.

For aspiring lawyers looking to practise in an area such as professional negligence, Jennifer suggests that personal skills are these days just as important as a solid grounding in technical law. “Having trained at the firm, I only have experience of Walker Morris in this respect, but there used to be a place for the ‘back room lawyer’ who was technically excellent, but didn’t have the soft skills to go out meeting clients and bringing in work,” she says. “While there may possibly be firms where that is still an option, to be a top solicitor in this area of the law, you’ve got to have personal skills to make personal connections with contacts, as well as the savvy and ability to cut through the nonsense and use your commercial sense to recognise what is best for your client.