Criminal lawyer finds flexible portfolio career
This week we speak to Leslie Cuthbert, a one time criminal lawyer in a law firm, who gave it all up in an attempt to get a more flexible working existence. He now takes on seven different jobs and still manages to have a more flexible (and more lucrative) life than he did in private practice. We asked him to tell us more…
mtl: Hello, Leslie, how are you?
Leslie: Very well, thank you.
mtl: Great. Now, start at the beginning.
Leslie: Well it may be hard to believe but I was aged seven when I decided to become a criminal lawyer - I know I was that age as my parents would always tell anyone who asked that I was that old when I made the decision.
Some children want to be astronauts, others footballing heroes. But it was always law for me, I think largely due to all the detective fiction that I read and all the crime series that were on television. It is something of a cliché, but I decided to do it as I did genuinely want to help people, although seeing Arnie Becker (from LA Law) driving a Porsche convertible with the licence plate “LITIG 8 R” might have contributed to it too! At seven years old I didn’t know about tax or commercial litigation, it was only criminal law. But when I became familiar with other areas of law later in life, it was still the criminal law that interested me.
So I studied for a law degree and then my LPC and as a result of doing work placements while at University I got a position in a firm doing criminal defence work. Things went well and I progressed from trainee to solicitor and on to be a partner, all within the space of four years. Being a partner at a criminal defence firm doesn’t guarantee you mega bucks though and my income was equivalent to that of friends of mine at associate solicitor level in City firms.
In the meantime I did a Masters, got my Higher Rights of Audience and opened my own branch office of the firm. I was also accepted on to the List of Counsel for both the Sierra Leone and Yugoslavian war crimes tribunals.
However, a combination of family crises and what I perceived to be unfair expectations of me within the firm meant that I became increasingly stressed at work. As a result I looked around for other options to get my work/life balance right.
I know that a lot of City lawyers may be reading this thinking – wow, you became a partner, set up your own office and got some interesting accolades – you’re pretty much set up for life. But, as a Legal Aid lawyer, life doesn’t necessarily work like that.
I was still relatively young, and the options seemed quite limited. The obvious one was to try another firm. But I didn’t know any criminal lawyers whom I felt had a good balance between work and life. In fact, if you think being in a City firm is a total rat race, you should check out your criminal law cousins! I realised that it wasn’t making me happy, and this was not good for my family. I asked for, and was given, a sabbatical and it was during that time that I decided that full-time private practice was not what I wanted. So what else could I do?
I had been teaching Criminal and Constitutional Law for a while with the Open University and I decided to continue with this. I also decided to use the skills I had gained from this work to conduct more training and became a consultant for Bond Solon Training Ltd., advising various organisations in relation to best investigative practice. This is a great option for someone wanting more flexibility in their life as it allows you to be very selective about the amount of work you take on and when you do it.
This path opened other doors for me and I have now also been appointed as a Visiting Law Lecturer for the College of Law and as a trainer for Central Law Training.
As I was a little wary of falling into that oft-quoted if ill-conceived adage of, “those that can, do, those that can’t, teach”, I still act as a consultant for my old firm. I keep my skills and knowledge up to date by attending police stations and courts, often as a Duty Solicitor, which means no preparation time is required. I also applied for and was successful in being appointed as a Congestion Charge Adjudicator, a tribunal position, which is hopefully the first step on the judicial ladder.
In addition I decided to look for work outside of the law and as a result I became a Non-Executive Director for South Essex Partnership NHS Trust, a Mental Health Trust (which since my appointment has succeeded in becoming one of the first Mental Health Foundation Trusts).
mtl: Goodness. You certainly seem to have your hands full. How do you manage to find time for anything else?
Leslie: Believe it or not, even though I now have a total of seven different roles, because I am basically self-employed with all of them, I still find a lot of time for my family and friends. In fact, it gives me enormous flexibility. What’s more, I now have a better income than I ever did in private practice. Most of my colleagues who are Adjudicators all say the same thing – they are much happier now. All of us were more than capable of doing the 'day job' but saw little future in legal aid work whether it was criminal or civil; at the bar or as a solicitor.
mtl: So how does one go about getting into Adjudication or the other things you do?
Leslie: Well you really need to be proactive, by which I mean keeping your eyes open and regularly checking out the relevant websites and newspaper advertisements. For example, the Judicial Appointments Commission deals with all sorts of judicial appointments. You can look at their website here.
Generally, the starting point is 7 years' PQE but apart from that it is all about demonstrating that you have the necessary competencies. Many positions do not require you to have in-depth knowledge of the specific law but rather have the judgment and ability to be able to learn what is needed to perform the role. Most of all, don’t assume that you are too young or too inexperienced and don't be afraid to apply – you may surprise yourself.
For those who are more public spirited and looking to take their career in other directions, the public appointments website details various organisations who would often be delighted to have a lawyer on their Board.
LLB (Hons) from
LPC from Anglia
Trainee at McCormacks Solicitors
1997 - 2000 Associate Solicitor at McCormacks Solicitors and obtained LLM from ICSL
2000 - 2004 Partner and Solicitor-Advocate at McCormacks Solicitors LLP
2004 – present Consultant at McCormacks with six other roles!
mtl: Great. Any further advice to lawyers inspired by your story?
Leslie: Plenty of people are very happy in private practice, but if you aren't one of them you shouldn’t think that you're stuck in a rut that you can't get out of. The skills and attributes that you gain as a lawyer can be invaluable in many other fields, so give it a shot.
I now feel that I am achieving what I set out to do all those years ago, which is to help people, yet at the same time I have the flexibility to enjoy my own interests and private life.
mtl: Indeed. Leslie Cuthbert, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck with your seven jobs.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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