Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


Should lawyers be interesting?

17 May 2013

Not necessarily.

Looking at a few people’s Pupillage Gateway forms and planning the recruitment for the Assistant Legal Officer at FRU has reminded me of a pet bugbear:

Please provide details of your interests and any non-work related involvement.

That’s a question on the Pupillage Gateway form, but common elsewhere as well. I don’t think anyone should ask it during a recruitment process.

First, interests and hobbies are often gender and background markers. Even if you anonymise your candidates, if someone says they were in their school’s first 11 and first 15, you can make a pretty good guess as to their gender, educational background and class. These obviously shouldn’t be considerations in recruitment decisions.

To be fair, I don’t think Chambers or other organisations, are keen on the interests question because they want to use it to identify people’s background before inviting them to interview. But it’s a good idea to avoid getting information that you shouldn’t be considering. It avoids accusations that you did, and ensures that you can’t be influenced subconsciously.

But, in any event, I just don’t think that whether people have interesting hobbies outside the law (or whether they’re successful at them) is useful in making recruitment decisions.

It’s just not important for lawyers to be interesting people or have interesting hobbies.

Some are and do. I know excellent lawyers who have all sorts of interests. They cycle centuries; stage-manage amateur dramatics; write books about programming; read Gabriel García Márquez in the original; have their amateur photography published; knit beautiful clothes; have multiple level 90 characters on World of Warcraft and much, much more. Name a hobby and you’ll find a lawyer doing it somewhere. And probably a few involved at its highest level.

I also know excellent lawyers who are, frankly, pretty boring people who don’t seem to have much of a life outside their work and their cases.

Now, in general, I tend to think that it’s better for people, including lawyers, to have a hinterland. It makes them more interesting at parties and gets them further along the journey to self-actualisation.

I also tend to think that for many lawyers, their outside interests improve their work. They can give a wider frame of reference, expose them to different people and different ideas, relieve some stress, keep them fit and so on. Nobody I know pursues their hobbies in order to become a better lawyer. It’s just a happy side-effect.

But trying to assess that during a recruitment process is hopeless. It’s a subtle and individualistic process. Trying to decide how a person’s interests influences them as a lawyer is entirely speculative – unless you know that person well (and you’re quite an acute observer). You certainly can’t do it from an application form or an interview.

I’m also unconvinced that proficiency in any of these outside activities is important. Two lawyers spend their weekends painting watercolours. One produces deeply mediocre daubs; the other competes in the RWS Contemporary Watercolour Competition. Is one likely to be a better lawyer than the other? I’d have thought not.

Sometimes an outside will might demonstrate a capability that is also valuable as a lawyer. Anyone who can, say, be accepted into the Magic Circle has demonstrated they have the characteristics to be a good stage magician. Some of which are the same characteristics needed to be a good lawyer. But one can be an enthusiastic, but hopeless, stage-magician, yet a brilliant lawyer. So looking at outside interests is a terrible way of assessing anyone’s legal ability. Which means it’s of no use in making recruitment decisions.

In any event, the fact is that some people don’t seem to need any of these outside interests to be good lawyers.

So asking people about their interests during the recruitment process is pointless (and potentially harmful). People should stop doing it.

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