“How to avoid Associate’s belly and generally keep your sh*t together” – an interview with Katherine Cousins, author of ‘Successful Solicitor.’

You might not recognise her name, but if you were legally woke in 2013 you have heard of Katherine Cousins. Author of ‘Successful Solicitor: get ahead of the game as a junior corporate lawyer,’ Katherine rose to fame five years ago when she spoke out against Trainees wearing red bras (amongst other fashion faux pas). This got swept up by the media, creating what I’m going to term ‘bra-gate’. Since then, she has qualified, changed firms a couple of times, completed a stint in Brussels and has recently published a book aimed at budding lawyers. Packed full of frank and breath-takingly honest advice, Successful Solicitor is quite easily one of the best career books I’ve read. And Katherine was kind enough to let me ask her some questions about it.

Thank you so much for letting me interview you today Katherine. Maybe you could start by telling me about how the book came about? 

Well, it started when I wrote a blog post for BLP’s graduate site when I was a Trainee there.  That was the one that hit Roll On Friday which made me think I was going to get fired. Around that time, one of my best friends said, ‘you’ve written something that has caught the attention of 7 of our major newspapers- which is stupid- but you’ve maybe got something there.’ And while I didn’t want to do anything else high-profile that might risk my job…again, it sort of sowed the seed.

 

cat in bra
According to Katherine, this is unacceptable

Fast forward a few years, and I had qualified, but was finding the transition from Trainee to NQ really hard. People expected me to know what I was doing, but I felt like I had absolutely no idea. I’d make stupid mistakes, and I’d look at the Partner’s feedback and think ‘that was really obvious- why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t it occur to me?’ I wasn’t trying to do a bad job- but I felt like I was accidentally doing a bad job, which is even worse.

However, after about 18 months the penny dropped. And while I still made mistakes, I started to really understand what I was doing- to think things through. I then broke my arm and was stuck at home for 3 weeks. So it was then that I dictated the notes that later became Successful Solicitor.

What I really like about your book is that you go off the beaten track with your advice. You really tell it how it is. And there’s also an honest vulnerability to it- for example, you talk about crying in the toilets. Was that something you did consciously? Or is it just how you are?

It was not necessarily a conscious thing so much as that’s just who I am. But being who I am has gotten me in trouble at various points (for instance that blog post) and I’ve definitely had feedback that I need to be more ‘corporate’. But more corporate just isn’t me.

Some people seem to think that to be a solicitor you have to work 2,500 hours a year, never show your feelings and always be too serious. But none of that is actually true. In all honesty, the people you’re dealing with- your clients- they don’t want a corporate robot as their lawyer. They need to have confidence in you, they need to trust what you’re saying. That’s the basic level of service expected. But your personality is what clients will come back for.

So that’s why- I just got so fed up of hearing the same boring phrases over and over again. And they don’t even mean anything. They’re just words. For example, I once worked with a Partner that kept repeating the term ‘ownership.’ I was like, “I’m not trying to be an arse but… I just don’t know what that means.” I later realised that he meant things like being aware of the next thing that needs to happen and checking in with him about it, not always passively waiting for his instructions. It’s not rocket science, but I don’t think it’s as obvious as it seems when you’ve been doing it for 20 years.

Fast forward to the end of your book, and you write “stay kind,” which is completely counter to the Suits ideology that law is always dog-eat-dog. What do you think of the whole Suits thing?

It is fine so long as you are the one who is winning! But that’s not always going to be the case. And I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but when I was training I definitely had more male colleagues with the Suits attitude. However, it’s not always a bad thing. For example, once as a Trainee I got a client to sign the wrong Companies House forms. And that lead to drama and crying and it was awful. Then the next day I met one of my male friends, and it turned out he had totally upended his cappuccino on some original signed documents. But he was just strolling about like, “yeah but they’re still legible- it’s fine.” I would have been absolutely devastated. So I feel like sometimes it is good to borrow a bit of that confidence.

And thinking about the Suits style, ‘sleep is for wimps’ culture, I know that there are some firms where I wouldn’t last 2 seconds before flipping my desk and screaming “THIS ISN’T A LIFE!”

flip desk
An artistic impression

Working a 90-hour week like they do on TV sounds balls-y and cool, but it actually feels like absolute crap. It’s just horrible. And (mostly) unnecessary.  To me, it doesn’t really matter if you’re earning £200,000 a year if you never really see the people you care about.

It is so important to consider that sort of thing when you’re a student and applying to different firms. I think when you’re trying to get a TC that can be easily forgotten. You’re so desperate – you’re just like ‘argh I want someone to want me!’

Can you remember any interviews where at the end you just thought “NOPE”?

When I moved back from Brussels to London, I interviewed at a number of firms- some I really loved, some I walked out like ‘ugh.’ And there was one where I cracked a joke and the guy just didn’t get it and was really a bit annoyed that I had been that stupid.

I have BEEN there. I once made a joke and no one laughed- and one interviewer even wrote it down. Nightmare. Needless to say I didn’t get that TC. What do you think is your most cringy interview moment?

A few years ago I made a comment that just landed really wrong. (Looking back, I think that it was the interviewer not me). It was a 1-on-1 interview, and the interviewer was known to be a little bit of a ladies’ man. He asked something like, “Do you think you have the determination to succeed here?” and I said “Yes, I’m totally happy to do X, Y, Z, whatever it takes and take Richard Whish home at the weekends.” Obviously, I meant the textbook! But the interviewer gave me this awful look. And I muttered something like “….not….um…I think he’s gay?” I was so embarrassed.

The other one was when a different interviewer said, “tell me about yourself”. As a joke, I started with “well, when I was 6…” But he interrupted me and said, “no-  I mean, as a lawyer.” I felt like saying – I know…that’s why it’s funny. The rest of the interview was hard work. The whole thing felt like a bad stand up routine. Like I was trying to get them to laugh and be fun and they just…wouldn’t. And I left the interview like…’uhh…tough crowd.’

However, in my interview for the firm I work for now, we just spent half an hour talking about one of my favourite cases. It was just so easy. It was a really nice conversation. I walked out and was like ‘I liked them’. And it was mutual. And when I joined, it felt like I had been there forever.

One of the things that I think is most unique about your book, is that at the end there is a large section on self-care. There’s also my favourite chapter of all, titled “How to avoid associate’s belly.” Why did you decide to write so much about health in what is primarily a career book?

It’s just so easy just to put your head down and eat a cheeseburger- especially when everything is hard. And then have a bit of cake at 4pm when you’re feeling a bit tired. And then go home and lay around. But it’s really important to make healthy decisions; you can’t work at a high level for a long time if you don’t also take pretty good care of yourself.

Your brain is part of your body. Don’t fill it full of caffeine. Try to get some sleep- you really do need it. We use our brains all day every day. You have to take care of it.

And while I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, I was eager to share the tips and tricks that work for me. There is a lot of information out there, and I’m very much into listening to podcasts on health and wellness. I would never have gotten this far without Lion’s Mane tea and choline supplements.

katherine--cousinsglow
And that, Ladies and Gents, is the healthy glow of a woman who doesn’t live on Pot Noodle and Red Bull. Take note.

I think some firms even push unhealthy living- at least on vacation schemes. For example, encouraging students to skip meals and drink excessive quantities of booze. And the consequences can be…embarrassing. You even touch on this in your book with the excellent phrase “an empty stomach plus three glasses of budget wine is a recipe for regret.”

Yes, and it’s really difficult for students- you have to avoid being an embarrassing drunk, but you also don’t want to be the anti-fun. Because no one wants to work with the T-total person who judges everyone. So if you don’t drink, take one and put it down somewhere. It’s just easier. I know you don’t have to justify your life choices to anyone, and in Britain we do have weird issues with cultural drinking, but in this situation…you just want to fit in.

On the other side of the coin, you also you don’t want to be the guy who drinks nine pints and punches one of the other vac schemers. (Which I have witnessed before.) People are judging you, and Trainees will report back if you are a good ‘fit.’ Basically everyone wants to see if you’ll be able to go to a client lunch, have two glasses of wine and go back to work without embarrassing anyone. Some people just can’t handle it.

Is punching someone the biggest vacation schemer blunder you’ve seen?

It does take the biscuit. But I also had a Trainee who turned up at 10.30 am because he had £5 left on his canteen card, so he thought he’d have a second breakfast. He had sat in the canteen eating for 90 minutes. And he didn’t see a problem with that.

There was also an Intern that refused to help me and an Associate with set up the room for a client meeting, because “that’s a secretary’s job.” I was absolutely staggered by that. It was just so rude.

Even when you’re in a law firm, the general rules of being a person still apply. You still need to be polite to other people.

As a way of concluding, do you have any parting advice for people starting their Training Contracts? What would you say to yourself a few years ago?

Be less self-deprecating. When you’re a Partner and everyone knows how good you are, then you can make jokes at your own expense. But until then, you risk people believing them. So it’s important to act like everything is under control. And then later when the client and your supervisor aren’t looking, you can be like, ‘AAAH I’VE NOT GOT IT.’

It’s also important to find your people. Your tribe. The people you can freak out around. And don’t make the mistake of pretending everything is absolutely fine when it’s not. Because I think it’s important to promote a culture where you can say “I’m not ok” without everyone saying “they’re weak- they’re not going to make it.” But don’t make the mistake of being too honest with people you shouldn’t be. Remember that if they’re gossiping about other people, they will gossip about you too. There are vipers out there. And I’ve definitely fallen foul of that in the past.

Thank you so much for answering all my questions Katherine. Do you think we can expect another book in the future, or are you more a one-book-wonder?

I’ve certainly thought about it. Not least because having an origami animal on the cover is something that’d work well across a collection. However, I don’t think I’m quite at the stage where I can advise people on the steps after completing a TC. I’m still very much at the mid-level associate learning stage. However, I may write a non-law version for young professionals going into other fields.

Well hopefully you won’t, but if you break your arm again it’d be a great use of your time!

I’m doing another ultra Spartan run in December, so the chance is there!

 

 

If you’re interested in reading Katherine’s book, you can buy it here.

If you’ve read it already and want to tell her how wonderful it is, this is her LinkedIn.

And if interviews are your thing, why not have a look at “Help! I hate my job” – An interview with career coach Hannah Salton.

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