Does being a litigator mean you are always arguing with people?
A great deal of my practice revolves around advisory and dispute avoidance work. You might not believe it but I don’t really like conflict. I suppose dispute resolution is a reflection of that. I don’t really consider myself a litigator, I try and avoid it wherever possible and I try and make sure my clients do too; it’s a last resort. Even so, when you have two sensible lawyers who are both objective there shouldn’t be any need for argument in the sense of aggression or name calling etc. It’s all quite civilised in most cases. If the other side is unusually aggressive it is often a sign they don’t have confidence in their case. I dealt with a case recently where the other side flatly dismissed every offer, insisted they were going to seek indemnity costs etc, etc, and we won on all points at trial. The frustration arises with lawyers who are acting outside their area of expertise or just aren’t very good. People might think a bad lawyer on the other side makes life easier, it does not. And of course then you have litigants in person who can be very challenging. I remember a guy a few years ago who went to the trouble of drafting an approximation of a US Treasury Bond in the sum of $1Bn on his laptop. He even sent a copy to Hank Paulsen at the US Treasury. Some people also believe everything they read on the internet about how to avoid repaying money etc. I suppose pressure makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do. It can be quite difficult dealing with neighbour and other residential disputes because people are rarely objective when dealing with their homes. Trying to convince a client not to go to war over an inch of land whilst keeping them convinced you are on their side can be challenging.
Does running your own practice put more pressure on you than working in a traditional firm?
There are still pressures but they are different pressures and, by and large, easier to control. I’m deaf and successive large law firms have simply failed to deal with it. I mean really deaf, it’s not that I can’t hear the telly unless it is really loud. I had my cochlear implant in 2014 and it has made a massive difference. And in fact it gave me the impetus and the confidence to do what I do now. I joined gunnercooke six months later.
I was a partner in some large national firms and the biggest issue was always people perceiving that deafness as a weakness they could take advantage of. Not all people by any means but enough to make it not a nice experience. But of course you get stuck with the long hours (and sometimes get used to the regular money) and it can be difficult to make the change. It often takes something life changing to make you realise. Certainly that was my experience. When you have been through something really challenging it can change your perception of life and I’m quite relaxed about things these days although just as determined to do my best for clients and colleagues. My stock phrase though is “what’s the worst that could happen?”.
You are also a Director of UK Deaf Sport. How do you juggle so many responsibilities?
UKDS isn’t actually that big a role time-wise. Averaged out it is probably not much more than a couple of hours a week. We oversee deaf sport in the UK (as the name suggests), so we are an umbrella body for Deaf Rugby, Deaf Golf etc, etc, and lobby on their behalf locally, nationally and internationally and are responsible for running the UK Deaflympics team. It’s really like running everything from Parkrun to the World Athletics Championships in one organisation. We are getting into the cycle of the next Deaflympics in 2021 now so that time commitment may increase but it is something I feel strongly about and which wasn’t available to me when I started going deaf and had to give up most competitive sport. So I want to try and make sure others in that situation have the opportunities. It’s a labour of love really.
I was introduced to it by a friend who knew the chairman. She thought “Tom’s deaf and he likes sport so it should be ideal”. Sometimes the simplest thoughts are the best ones.
I also do quite a bit of work with Med El, the cochlear implant manufacturers, doing magazine articles and blog posts. I also went to Innsbruck to present to their production team. I call it my ‘building-a-media-career-out-of-going-deaf’ project and it is going fairly well so far.
Then there is the endless (at this time of year) rugby club admin; I am a team manager for one of the junior sides at my local club.
And of course there are three kids, the dog etc, etc.
Keep switching about between the roles; a change is as good as a rest they say.
Of course it’s much easier to fit it all in now I don’t spend up to 3 hours a day commuting. What a waste of time that was! And “going to the office” for half an hour on a weekend doesn’t really invade my personal time. I just pop up the hallway and into the study if needed.
Are there any other factors that are stressful for you at work and home?
Gosh yes but I’m learning to cope or avoid.
We’ve had builders in since May who were supposed to be done by mid-August but it’s November now and they are still here. At least I have the advantage of being able to switch off my hearing when they are too noisy. This works with babies too, I have never had a sleepless night.
The biggest stress driver for me though is people and organisations who refuse to deal any other way than by telephone. My implant has made a massive difference but isn’t really up to ordinary phone use, especially if I am trying to speak to call centres. Talking to my mum or friends about the usual banalities is doable but with work it is really important I get everything. Banks, HMRC etc should do better. Clients are by and large quite acceptant and happy to use (free) modern tech such as FaceTime, Skype etc or good old fashioned email. One or two just refuse and I have to tell them I am not the lawyer for them which is frustrating. And then there are other lawyers who sometimes try to use it as a weapon. One actually threatened to report me to the SRA for not being able to phone her. I don’t know if she did but I never heard from them.
gunnercooke has been pushing the use of Skype (and now Microsoft Teams) since before I arrived and we have Zoom and LoopUp provided by the firm so there is no excuse internally.
Still, looking back 10 years, almost none of this tech was available and I’m looking forward to what the next 10 years brings in that respect.
Others’ convenience is my necessity but the more the tech companies contribute to that convenience, the better for me.
Do you have any stress-relieving tips?
Red wine does it for me. Seriously, I can get out of the house and be wandering along the Ship Canal with the dog in two minutes, go for a run etc. I’m a footpath warden for my local Parish Council which involves checking public rights of way for obstructions etc so that gets me to walk in places I probably otherwise would not rather than the same circuit every day (although I understand it is a new experience for the dog every day even if you do that). I do walking rugby with Sale Sharks on Monday nights and have even started pilates classes which are great for flexibility after 30 years of (real, I hesitate to say running) rugby. Subject to client demands I can take the day off and do something else.
I generally try to maintain a rosy outlook on life and see the positives in any situation so that helps.
As I say above, it’s much easier to control things now and it’s pretty much down to me rather than other people. That in itself, knowing you are in control, is a very powerful stress reliever.