A Day in the Life of a Lawyer
Dylan Blyth speaks to Lawyer Josephine Van Lierop
Josephine Van Lierop is a Senior Associate at Slater and Gordon UK, specialising in Employment Law. She has gained over fifteen years of valuable experience practicing law across three jurisdictions; New Zealand, England & Wales, and, currently, Scotland. As well as defending the rights of her clients, Josephine has made multiple TV and radio appearances, offering specialist advice on workplace law and commenting on current employment issues in the media. In July 2015, she won the well-publicised case of ‘J. Humphryes v Yoo Limited & Others’, earning her client a settlement of over £400,000.
I recently sat down with Josephine to discuss her extensive law career, and what it really means to become a lawyer. This is a day in the life of a lawyer, with Josephine Van Lierop.
In 2002, Josephine qualified as a barrister and solicitor in New Zealand, before coming to the UK in 2010. Her entry into the field followed a traditional path:
“I did my law degree, and I did my training, in New Zealand. I practiced in New Zealand for about 4 years before I came to the UK. In order to obtain a practicing certificate from the Law Society in England & Wales I had to qualify in UK law. That required me to do what was then-called the ‘Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test’. And I’m doing the equivalent of that now, which is a qualification to transfer from being an English-qualified lawyer to being a Scot’s Law qualified lawyer”.
Josephine is currently studying for her ‘Scot’s Law’ exam. Her situation is somewhat unique as she is required to sit this exam to cross-qualify from one jurisdiction (where she is qualified) to another. The course, provided to her by the University of Strathclyde, is the gateway for lawyers qualified elsewhere (such as England & Wales) to practice in Scotland.
I ask Josephine what the most common path taken towards a career in law is. She tells me;
“Most people who are training to be a lawyer will go and do a degree. I had to do a law degree, because that was the requirement in New Zealand at the time, although that’s not the situation in the UK: you can do any other kind of Bachelors degree. Then, following that, you do what’s called a ‘law conversion course’, which is sometimes referred to as the LPC. Once you’ve done that conversion course, you are then eligible to undertake a ‘traineeship’.
I ask Josephine to tell me more about the traineeship, or training contract.
“Eligible candidates compete for training contracts within law firms”, she begins, “and if you secure a training contract, then the Firm will hire you for two years and give you exposure to different core areas of law. It could be property law; criminal law; commercial contracts. The arrangements will differ between firms, but most will accommodate between 4-6 elections, but it will be up to you and your HR department as to where you will be placed within the Firm. In some cases it might be difficult for a Firm to accommodate all trainees’ preferences, but Firms generally seek to accommodate some preferences throughout their rotations, so that ideally you get exposed to the area of law you would ideally like to practice in once qualified”.
I ask Josephine what or who inspired her into training to become a lawyer in the first place.
“I was always very interested in history, and law often involves looking at the history or evolution of something. Many great historians and significant figures, for example, in various different civil rights struggles across the world, were trained as lawyers, from the suffrogettes, to the civil rights figures in the US, to the activists in New Zealand’s indigenous rights movement. My interest in those stories is probably what first lead me to the law. I enjoyed English and reading and writing. I was a very good essay-writer in those days. Those skills lend themselves to the analysis and drafting of legal documents”.
Josephine also says she was probably coaxed into it by a splash of Hollywood drama. I am curious as to whether TV shows like Law and Order and How To Get Away With Murder lend themselves towards becoming a lawyer; whether there is any correlation between the consumption of this genre of media, and becoming a lawyer. I pose the question to Josephine:
She laughs, and tells me simply:
“Absolutely not. My life is nothing like Suits”.
Josephine has been a practicing lawyer for more than 15 years. So what is a day in her shoes really like?
“Most of the day I am talking to my clients, face to face or on the phone and over email. I’m reading documents that they give me about the issue they are experiencing (generally at work) . We do this to understand what the objectives are”.
“Then”, she continues, “it tends to be researching, considering what is the legal position, and what is the answer to their problem, and then advising them on what their options are. That might be through a face-to-face meeting, where we sit down and go through everything together. It could be over the phone. It could be something I do in writing if I think they need to be able to see it written down. That’s generally the three different ways I convey advice to clients”.
Advising clients on their legal rights and potential legal options is only a portion of the work Josephine does.
“There are other aspects to the role such as going to court or Tribunal, drafting the paperwork for going to court, and attending mediation (that’s trying to resolve a dispute by sitting around a table, and thrashing out a resolution that both sides can live with, as a compromise)”.
Josephine has specialised in employment law for a decade now. I ask her more about this branch of the law, and her work within it.
“I do all sorts of employment law, but act solely for individuals, as opposed to employers”, she tells me. “So that involves looking at contractual disputes (if the employer has breached the employee’s contract, or if the employee has breached their contract). I do lots of ‘whistleblowing’ claims. I do lots of discrimination and equality law work. For example, if an individual wants to raise a complaint internally that they are being subjected to a detriment because of a particular characteristic, like gender, age, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability etc. Some such complaints, if they cannot be resolved internally or at an early stage, will wind up being claims in Court or the Tribunal, in which case I will represent my clients in those actions”.
For the most part the work involves “negotiations, and trying to get people out of difficult situations before things become entrenched. So that might be, for example, helping an individual draft a grievance that they’re going to file with their employer, or helping them to negotiate an exit from their job. Rather than going to court to resolve the problem, most people will want a quick, quiet resolution; but not all”.
Josephine brings up an interesting idea I had never considered before: solving problems behind the scenes as opposed to taking them to a courtroom. This strikes me as interesting, when I consider TV courtroom dramas, where all the business happens before a judge.
“Generally the idea is to avoid a court”, she says. “The reason for that is that as soon as you go into court, there’s a large degree of uncertainty because you’re not in control of the outcome. The result could go against your client. . The second sometimes prohibiting consequence of Court is the cost. The longer a dispute runs for, generally speaking, the more costly it is. As soon as you go to court, you are working to the Court’s timetable, rather than your clients’, in which case you could be looking at 12 months or more to get a resolution. Whereas if you can have a direct discussion with an employer on the other side, and make a reasonable proposal, you could get the matter resolved for your client in a few weeks. It’s not just uncertainty and cost; it’s also commonly reputation. Senior Executives, professionals, and people who are very career driven and focused will generally want to be able to resolve things quietly and smoothly, with the least repercussions possible on their longer term prospects, so they can just move on”.
Prior to her work as an employment lawyer, Josephine worked as a family lawyer, and then for the UK Government. I ask her about the beginning stages of her career:
“I originally started out as a family lawyer, resolving relationship property disputes and divorce, child protection work, and representing women seeking urgent protective orders from domestic violence. I was really interested in family law throughout University. After a few years in practice, I found it a bit tough, really. The issues that people faced weighed on you”.
“I’d had some exposure to a few big employment tribunal cases in New Zealand. It was an eye opener to a new area of law which I was really enjoying working in, and so I gained more access to this work, and then when I moved to the UK decided to pursue this area of practice fully”.
When she moved to the UK in 2010, Josephine secured a job working solely as an employment lawyer with the UK Government.
“I worked for the Treasury Solicitor, which is essentially the team of lawyers who act for the central Government. I worked there for 5 years, doing employment law, advising Government departments (groups like the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office, HM’s Prison Service) where I had a lot of exposure to equal pay claims, as there was a historical pattern in government of women being paid less than men for doing the same work. I was also involved in advising Minister’s on certain employment related issues”.
“It was a really great five years. I learned a lot about discrimination work in the UK, which I hadn’t been exposed to as much in New Zealand. And then, I decided to go into private practice, and that’s when I joined Slater and Gordon, in London”.
I bring Josephine back to earlier in our chat, and her mentioning of research, and its importance. I ask about her approach towards researching a new case.
“The first point is to identify the issue or the legal problem or cause of action. Commonly, this will be in a contract or in a Statute, like the Equality Act 2010, as an example”.
“What I’m searching for is an answer within a field that I’m now very familiar with. I’ve been an employment lawyer for ten years at least. You tend to know what you are looking for broadly, but ultimately, once you have identified where your client’s right exists, then you are looking for cases that have gone before yours, with similar facts, so you can argue that your case should be treated the same (or differently) to a legal precedent. There are now a range of providers who give you access to all these legal precedents.
This is what we call Case law. These are all the cases on that issue that have gone before, and have been important enough to be recorded in what’s called “The Law Reports”. Those cases are another source of law, and are what we use to interpret statutes. Your client has presented you with a story, essentially, and your job is to deduce what legal complaints they might have from that story, apply the relevant statute or contractual provision, and then look at the case law, because it’s in the case law that we find stories similar to the problems our clients have got now. Then [we] use those cases to either show that your case is similar, and therefore should get the same result, or show how it’s different, and therefore how you should get a different result”.
As well as interpreting and researching the law in direct relation to a particular case, there are other areas of investigation which may need to be explored; and every case will be different. You may need to educate yourself generally in terms of what was happening in the context to your client’s issue, such as a wider market or regulatory issue. Sometimes you’re looking up information about the company that you’re going to sue. Sometimes you’re looking up information about your client’s disability or medical problem. Sometimes it’s this more general information which is helpful to analysing the facts, in addition to the law”.
Slater and Gordon, who acts solely for individuals, produces a range of online, legal content, in the form of blogs and videos. These are designed as informative, accessible nuggets of information for members of the public. Josephine herself has written a number of these blogs, and videos. I ask her why this type of content is important.
“You know what the world is like these days. People expect their information in all forms of media and, for some people, sending them a document is just not going to tick their box. So we give them a snippet of the position in a short video, because lots of people will absorb that information more readily”.
You can find this material at www.slatergordon.co.uk and more about Josephine at
I conclude the interview by asking Josephine what she thinks the three most valuable skills are when becoming a lawyer.
She tells me:
1. “Research. Being a good researcher. Learning how to research”.
2. Being a creative thinker; learning to think outside the box for a strategic resolution that is practical for your client can be better than coming up with the black and white legal answer”
3. “Organisation, [particularly] time management. Being able to manage your time is essential as a lawyer. Lots of people probably don’t know but traditionally a lawyer accounts for their time on a client’s file in six minute units, so every six minutes is accountable to a client. A person is paying for your time, and they need to know you’ve been as efficient as you can in getting them the answer to their problem.”
By Dylan Blyth.