Learning From Top Barristers

Lord Keen in action at last week's Supreme Court Hearing

Lord Keen in action at last week's Supreme Court Hearing

Last week saw the UK Government’s Appeal of a High Court ruling on whether the Government can trigger the formal process of withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) without prior consent of Parliament. The UK Supreme Court’s hearings are held in-camera, which meant that for the four days the hearing was held, the public was able to watch proceedings. With my background in law, I watched the hearing with interest. As the legal points in question were on the topic of constitutional law, it was like being back in year one of my degree course.

There were many lawyers presenting their cases as there were many parties with an interest in the case. Aside from the legal arguments I also had two further curiosities in the whole procedure. One was from a communication perspective and the other was an organisational curiosity.

On the organisational curiosity, I was interested in how the lawyers organised their papers and speeches (submissions) to the court. What I saw was the best lawyers, the ones who got their points across best, were the lawyers who had their papers and notes organised in a logical order and when they referred to cases they were able to find those cases with ease. The lawyers who did not get their points across well, who seemed like they were struggling to get their argument across, had disorganised papers and files and appeared lost. They used a lot of errrms and uums and at times looked like they did not know what they were doing.

To be able to get all those papers, references and arguments across into a professional, coherent manner takes a lot of preparation. To be able to anticipate questions, to have reference and case numbers immediately to hand, quotations from previous rulings and be able to counter-argue points from the other side’s lawyers needs a clear, uncluttered mind and focus on the essential points.

For us, every day folk, this hearing was a lesson on what it takes to be great at what you do. Of course there is an element of talent involved, there always is, but the lawyers presenting their case who did not come across as very good, have talent, but they lost out in the area of organisation. Their files were everywhere, their references took too long to find and their arguments appeared speculative because of the poor way in which they organised their materials and thus delivered their arguments.

Two outstanding lawyers, Lord Keen for the Government and Lord Pannick for the Respondent were very organised. Their oral presentation was coherent, their references were written down in front of them and the cases they quoted were ready at their side. It was clear Lords Keen and Pannick had prepared their own materials, the materials they used to address the court. They had anticipated potential questions and they built their case layer by layer, page by page. It was a masterclass in advocacy and organisation.

The mistakes most people make when they have an important meeting to attend or a presentation to do is they do not spend enough time developing their materials. They think just gathering materials together is enough. If you want to be outstanding that is not enough. Your reference materials need to be quickly accessed, your points need to be in front of you where you can see them, not hidden away in a file full of other papers, and you need to have the answers to questions ready, right where you can find them. To do that you need time. You need to make it a priority and you certainly should not be handing such an important part of your work off to your junior staff, no matter how important you think you are.

Being organised is often considered a nice skill, but not an essential one. I would beg to differ on that. I believe being organised is an essential skill. There is so much easily accessible information around today. We have access to whole libraries of information on our smart phones. Having the skills to be able to access the right information at the right time is vital. Being able to organise that information so we can use it in the right way and at the right time takes skill. This is as much a part of our personal lives as well as our professional lives. Without the ability to get the right information when we need it we waste so much time running around searching for stuff, we end up stressed out and unable to do a professional job.

If you really want to excel in your chosen field, whether that be law, software development or something else, you need to be organised. It is the one soft skill anyone can master and the one soft skill that can elevate you from average to great in the shortest time. Talent is one thing, and a very powerful one indeed, but talent alone is not going to make you great. Getting your stuff organised, knowing where everything is and being able to access it it when you need it is vitally important and a skill you can develop yourself to becoming great at what you do.

Learn how to use applications like Evernote and OneNote and other reference material software. Choose one, learn how to use it properly and make it an every day part of your life. Your brain alone cannot store all the information you need for your job and your life. We are fortunate to live in an age where we do not have to remember everything as technology has given us the ability to carry devices around with us that can hold that information for us. But just having that information to hand does not mean you have the skill. You need to learn and master how to access the right information at the right time. That is your responsibility and your key to becoming great at what you do. Now go out and get yourself organised and become great at what you do!

Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century