The unwritten rules of legal practice: dare you ignore them?

You are at the start of a career in one of the branches of the law. In the UK, the main branches are barrister (or, in Scotland, advocate), solicitor or academic. Whichever branch you choose, it is important to learn the rules of the game.

There are the formal rules, which are mostly written down, such as rules of conduct and rules of procedure in court. And there are the unwritten rules. While there is no legal requirement to follow the unwritten rules, it takes a brave person to ignore them, particularly at the start of their legal career. Some of those ‘rules’ are useful guidance on best practice; others are pointless and tribal.

There is the dress code, which for barristers is rather formal, and sometimes makes very junior barristers look like they have been dressed by their mothers. In court, IP Draughts was taught to wear a dark, three-piece suit, or a double-breasted one with the buttons done up. In 1983, his rather avant-garde pupil master praised him for his balance of conformity and modernity when IP Draughts wore a plain, mid-grey flannel suit, double-breasted, but with conventional lapels rather than the pointy ones.

In later years when working in a firm of solicitors, IP Draughts was criticised by a partner (when both were in a lift soon after arriving at work) for wearing a padded, fawn coat, nearly new, that looked a bit like an anorak. It was a cold winter’s day. But the coat wasn’t acceptable to this partner. Such are the pressures of life and the attention to detail in a stuffy legal environment.

Dress code may be thought superficial, but the pressure to conform runs much deeper.

If you are at a certain point in your career and want to advance to the next stage, it would do you no harm to write a book. (Just the one, mind. Writing six books, like IP Draughts has done, doesn’t send the right signal at all.) IP Draughts can think of two judges and the head of an international IP body that followed this rite of passage shortly before their promotion.

IP Draughts has learnt that some of the lawyers attending his courses are reassured by references to case law, and think there is more substance in the course if it includes such references. Rather than fight this, over the years IP Draughts has upped the case citations in his talks, though his instinct is to focus on the principles that these cases follow rather than the individual manifestations of them in particular decisions.

In the world of academic law articles, it seems not to be enough to explain difficult points of law and make them easy to understand to the non-specialist reader. Instead, articles should follow the approach indicated in the Society of Legal Scholars’ guidance to would-be authors of articles in their journal, Legal Studies, and:

  • Analyse the history, development and contemporary status of law with particular reference to doctrinal, conceptual, theoretical, comparative or socio-legal analyses such that they are of interest to a general legal readership international.
  • Place current legal developments in historical and theoretical perspectives.
  • Analyse contributions to the study of law in the fields of jurisprudence, legal history, and international and comparative law.

This guidance makes IP Draughts think he would never cut it as an academic lawyer. Having said that, he sees some articles, including some in Legal Studies, where material of the kind quoted above has been added in a rather clunky fashion, almost as an afterthought. Perhaps part of the trick of being a top academic, particularly in the more applied areas of legal research, is to make the sociological and normative content look a natural part of the article, rather than a bolted-on addition. In other words, learn how to play the game.

This all may sound cynical. In fact, it is just pointing out what many lawyers and other professionals soak up and follow unquestioningly. Some of these practices didn’t come naturally to IP Draughts, and he is glad that he is reaching a stage in his career where he doesn’t need to worry so much about unintentionally putting his foot in it.

IP Draughts’ advice for non-conformists at the start of their career is: think carefully about each convention, and if it serves no useful purpose and you dislike it, ditch it unless you are in a very conformist environment. And perhaps move out of that conformist environment as soon as you have learnt what you can from it.






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