My Ruby Anniversary as a Solicitor

11 August 2021
Susan Alexander, Consultant Solicitor

I was lucky enough to be taken on as a trainee by my university lecturer in Evidence and Procedure and had a great training in a Glasgow City Centre firm, specialising in civil litigation. I was only 20 years old when I had started my training in 1979 and extremely wet behind the ears. It is true that everyone in the office, including the one-legged mail man, knew more about the job than I did. On my first day I had to get a client to sign a form. This should have been a simple task, but I only asked him to sign on one page, not realising that he needed to sign on two. I was so terrified of getting into trouble that in the evening I took three buses to his home with the form for him to sign and once signed three buses back. In the morning no-one was any the wiser about my foul up.

The work was so different in those days and looking back, I feel like Methuselah. There was basically no tech although I do vaguely remember a Telex machine. There were no computers or even electronic typewriters, no faxes, email didn’t exist, mobile phones had yet to be invented. Yet at the same time Richard Susskind was a contemporary and even in these early days was writing about how lawyers would be taken over by machines.

In the mornings, the solicitors would arrive, their secretaries would serve them tea, sit down with a notepad and pencil and take their dictation to answer that morning’s post. Everything came by letter or was delivered. Conveyancing completions took place in person with the purchaser’s solicitor going personally to the seller’s solicitor’s office to exchange the money for the deeds. The court solicitors would then head down to the Sheriff Court in Glasgow to do their trials and proofs or appear in the Ordinary Court. The Ordinary Court was a massive court with around 30 or so lawyers gowned up in the benches with litigants and members of the public watching on. It was the size of a small theatre. This was a civil court which dealt with over 100 applications and civil interlocutory applications every day. Our firm did a lot of agency work and once I qualified, I became a regular at the Ordinary Court as an advocate doing scores of applications each morning. I had to learn to be very organised to make sure I had all the relevant paperwork at my fingertips, and I learned to think on my feet. The other lawyers nicknamed me the Iron Pussycat (this was of course, Mrs Thatcher’s era).

At lunchtime all the solicitors (all men, I was their first female) would adjourn to the Blue Chip for lunch. We would be joined by other solicitors from other firms and my bosses would regularly settle their cases with them over lunch. In the afternoon, we would be booked solidly with client appointments, yet no one seemed to work beyond 6pm.

It was a rarefied existence looking back on it. It took me a good nine months to even begin to feel like I could do the job. The salary was abysmal, but you were considered lucky to be paid as before my time budding solicitors had to pay for their training. I remember I was paid £8 per week. My parents lived far away from the City so I lived in digs which took up all my pay. I had a second job working most nights as a barmaid at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, which is the home of Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet, so at least I got some culture.

I relocated to Chester in 1993 and passed the exams to become a solicitor in England and Wales in 1994 and have practised here ever since.

It is hard to believe I’ve done the job for 40 years and that I was so young when I qualified. If you genuinely love the study of law and find people endlessly fascinating, then there is no better career. Out of my cohort of friends who graduated at the same time, only one other woman is still working in law. This is not a career for the faint hearted and you need to be very resilient.

Advice I’d give to my younger self (given to me by an older colleague): Don’t be so hard on yourself.

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Please note: This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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