18 NOVEMBER 2015
The Three Rs - Reading, wRiting, aRithmatic
In relation to education policy, Tony Blair will be remembered for his relentless emphasis on what he called the 3Rs - Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. To Mr Blair’s 3Rs, I would add IT literacy as the fourth essential element of a 21st century education designed to launch you successfully into working life.
When I reflect on my own education, it is my grounding in the 3Rs which has served me best in the workplace. In 1990, I took 9 very traditional O’levels, which gave me a solid, broad base and plenty of options. I went on to Sixth Form College where I completed the International Baccalaureate.
After Sixth Form College I went to Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge where I took a degree in Social and Political Sciences. My degree led everywhere and nowhere. Unlike friends who had taken vocational degrees such as Medicine or Engineering, my degree gave me plenty of options but no obvious career path.
I decided to pursue a career in law, spending two years at law school before joining Freshfields Bruckhaus Derringer, a leading international law firm. For the past fifteen years I have practised as an employment lawyer, a job I love.
So which aspects of my formal education serve me best in my daily working life?
A lawyer is first and foremost a wordsmith so the wRiting skills I acquired in the course of my formal education have proven absolutely critical to building a successful career. I need to be able to convey complicated legal concepts to my clients in a way which is readily accessible to the lay person through the effective use of plain English. In drafting legal documents, I need to write with precision, using correct punctuation to ensure that my drafting achieves my client’s objectives. I need to be able to write succinctly, getting straight to the heart of a problem, and distilling and articulating key legal concepts.
I need to be able to tailor my writing style to different audiences and for different purposes. For example, legal drafting requires a formal, legal style of writing which is absolutely precise; by contrast, to build a relationship with a client by email (being the way in which so much of business is transacted now) requires a friendlier more informal style. Preparing tender documents requires yet another writing style, the emphasis here being on persuasive writing that sells my skills and experience.
What about Reading? A job in law, whether as a solicitor or a barrister, requires an ability to read both large volumes of documents as well as very complex texts such as statutes and lengthy legal judgments. Good lawyers have to hone their skills at speed reading and digesting, analysing and recalling substantial volumes of written material.
While it might not be immediately obvious why a solid grasp of basic aRithmetic is essential to an employment lawyer, I regularly have to do basic (and sometimes not so basic) calculations, both in the work I do for clients and in the course of running my own law firm. For example, if advising on a dispute arising from the termination of an employee’s employment, part of my job is to calculate the financial loss to the employee flowing from the dismissal. This requires me to undertake a variety of calculations - some simple (such as working out how much salary would have been paid to the employee during the notice period had notice been served), and some more complex (such as grossing up an employee’s net loss to reflect the fact that he or she will have to pay income tax on any award of compensation made by the Employment Tribunal).
Having recently established my own law firm, I am now responsible for my firm’s financial affairs which again requires me to be mathematically proficient. For example, in my client facing role, I have to ensure that all invoices are accurate and include the appropriate amount of VAT; while in managing my firm, I have to ensure that I exercise good financial and book-keeping discipline, undertaking checks and balances, and performing bank reconciliations.
As hard as it is to believe now, when I first embarked on my legal career only fifteen years ago, computers had only recently been introduced to my firm and many partners were still able to pursue highly successful careers while being completely computer illiterate. That is no longer the case. IT is now such an established and ubiquitous part of working life that a lack of IT literacy is likely to be a major hindrance in developing your career.
Because I am a solicitor rather than a barrister, my job is largely desk bound and I spend a very high proportion of my working time (around 70 to 80%) at my computer. I use Microsoft Word to produce letters and written legal advice; PowerPoint to produce presentations; Outlook to communicate with clients by email; and Excel to build the spreadsheets I need to perform calculations, both in the client work that I do and also for the purposes of running my own business. I have to be computer literate as the days of the old fashioned personal assistant who typed your documents and sent your faxes are largely gone. To succeed in today’s workplace, you need to be self sufficient from an IT perspective.
Looking back on my education, I loved Politics, Economics and French. Subjects such as these, as well as being a pleasure to study for their own sake are readily and regularly deployed in the world of work. Politics and Economics, for example, are very useful to Anti-trust lawyers; competition law being a fascinating mix of politics, economics and law. Likewise, international law firms recruit substantial numbers of modern linguists who use their language skills to assist their employers in servicing clients across the globe. But to my mind, the fundamental pre-requisites to a successful career are the core subjects of English and Maths together with a high level of computer literacy.
If asked, the best advice I could give to any young student is by all means pursue your interests at school, taking subjects that capture your interest and imagination, but ensure above all that by the time you leave formal education, you are literate, numerate and IT proficient.
Alexandra Worden has practiced as an employment lawyer for the past fifteen years and recently established her own law firm. Read Alexandra's full career profile.
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