Bloomsbury Professional catch up with author and solicitor, Susan Singleton.
What first attracted you to the law?
I chose law when I was 14. I read a lot of books particularly autobiographies as a teenager and lawyers often appeared in the books. It sounded an interesting long term career. My father (an NHS psychiatrist in Newcastle upon Tyne) did a lot of work as an expert witness in court working with solicitors who needed a medical report for their cases and also sat on Mental Health Review Tribunals so that also helped make me interested in the legal profession. He was often having to go out to Durham prison to see prisoners with mental health issues. My father’s uncle who died in 1917 was a solicitor in Leeds with his own practice although that was long before I was born. He qualified in 1892 and his first case was one for a breach of promise of marriage.
I also knew it would be intellectually fascinating and there was a clear, defined career path into it too and in commercial law in London. It is also well paid. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
It is all fairly easy these days now that I work for myself since founding my own firm of solicitors in London and I am based in my home office so even getting to work is very simple. Balancing different clients’ deadlines sometimes is difficult but I have tried to cut out unnecessary meetings which helps.
It was difficult when the children were babies feeding them at night (none of our five children ever seemed to sleep much) and then getting up to go to work full time although we both found work a nice break from childcare at times. At one point we had a brand-new baby, a one-year-old and a three-year-old and both worked full time.
For those starting out setting up on their own as a solicitor I always say the hardest issue will be whether you can generate any clients. I started my firm with no clients, just a few paid writing/ editing and speaking assignments and contracts and built it up from there. Without the legal writing particularly a paid editorship of IT Law Today monthly journal I am not sure I would have been able financially to take the risk of setting up on my own as we had three children to keep and a very large mortgage.
What advice would you give someone starting a career in law today?
Do it. It is very rewarding as a career. Gain the best exam results you can at school and at university. I took part in moots at university and spent two years doing weekly volunteering in the university law centre during my law degree and at school I did a fair bit of speech and drama as well as lots of writing. I even typed five 50,000-word books in my teens, none of which anyone would publish, but it was very good experience for being a solicitor where writing contracts and writing advice for clients does require good spoken and written English.
Most of all plan your career. Solicitors’ firms recruit a number of years in advance. You will probably be applying for law firm paid vacation schemes in the Autumn of year two of your degree for the following summer and then 12 months later applying for training contracts (or their new equivalent after 2021 when qualification rules change for solicitors). Similarly if you go to the bar apply early.
Do not tie yourself down to an area of law too early at university. Keep an open mind. You might think criminal law sounds interesting because that is what you saw on television series you loved but there are lots of other areas of law out there worth a look.
How do you think Brexit will affect commercial contracts?
I have given hour webinars on this topic. The short answer is always consider it carefully and in many contracts include a clause about Brexit. Looking at one small area only, I give a lot of competition law and intellectual property law advice particularly about export and imports of items protected by trade marks and other IP rights. The EU rules on free movement of goods and exhaustion of rights as regards the UK will be affected by Brexit. The Intellectual Property (Exhaustion of Rights) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 ( SI 2019/265) come into force on exit day and provide that goods protected by IP rights can come into the UK from the EU/EEA where the rights owner put them on the market in the EU, whereas it will not work the other way round unless the EU27 decides otherwise. So there may be some scope for UK IP rights owners being able to stop exports from the UK and thus maintain different prices more easily. That is one example of hundreds of legal areas each of which will need to be examined on a case by case basis from public procurement rules affecting public sector contracts to the Data Protection Act 2018.
What would you be if you weren’t a solicitor?
- Maybe a writer. I have written 30 law books so perhaps could have been an author of a different kind.
- Maybe a speaker. I have given 1700 law talks since 1991 on law all over the world including Iran, Dubai, Nigeria and much of Europe and were I to choose a different career I might have spoken about different topics from law. I have also taken part in a fair number of television and radio interviews over the years, most about the law or parents balancing work and home life.
- Possibly a singer. I took a deliberate decision not to go into music professionally when I was younger. I did a fair bit of professional choral singing and still play the piano and sing every day. I am glad I kept it as a hobby as it is quite hard to make a living in it (my children’s father is an organist) and one of the most important aspects of my life has been having five children whilst working full time. Being able to support them financially is important. That is easier as a solicitor than a professional singer in most cases. The youngest two children are now at university, but I do not plan a career change or early retirement. Work is too much fun.
- Possibly living off the grid. I was offered a place to stay by John Seymour, a back to nature, live off the land author, to whom I wrote as a teenager. I turned it down and instead continued my studies. I did manage to buy a remote island in Panama (a childhood aim of mine) and the family and I have had a lot of fun camping there from time to time, although I sold it in 2014. I also had an allotment for a time too near home.
- Finally, I always wanted to be a spy when I was younger. My sister and I used to go round the neighbourhood taking notes about what was going on when we were children. We helped the police in one case where we identified burglars in the garden of a neighbour’s house we had been asked to look after whilst they were on holiday. Had I not been a solicitor I might have enjoyed working for MI6, if they would have had me.
I suspect being a solicitor has been the right choice for me however and I am not sure that any of the other options would have worked out as well.
Susan Singleton is the author of Commercial Agency Agreements: Law and Practice, E-Commerce and Convergence: A Guide to the Law of Digital Media, Joint Ventures and Shareholders' Agreements, Beswick and Wine: Buying and Selling Private Companies and Businesses, Buying and Selling Insolvent Companies and Businesses, Commercial Contracts: A Practical Guide to Standard Terms.