So does that mean that legal knowledge is not important? Absolutely not. I must know the potential pitfalls that could destroy my client's vision but not so that I can then tell him all the issues but rather so that I can manage the transaction so that the vision is realised whilst avoiding the issues. Like the London cabbie - I tell him the destination and expect him to get me there in the swiftest, safest and cheapest way. Sometimes I might ask why he went a certain way but I do not want to hear from him a running commentary on why he did not go a different way.
Back to my fresh intake of trainees joining next week; which is more important - commerciality vs. legal knowledge. Well, when I started as a trainee in the 20th century(!) my first seat was with a senior property partner at Berwin Leighton called David Rhodes. On my first day David turned to me and said:
"Barry, you undoubtedly know more law than I do, but I know how to use it better"This thought has remained with me throughout my career. Obviously David did know more law than me but that was not relevant. It is not knowing the law that is important but rather knowing how to use it.
I expect trainees to know the law in detail and, more importantly, how to be able to research and find out the law. I do not expect trainees to know instantly when the specific legal point can be disregarded as it does not affect the client's vision. In fact, I would be very concerned if trainees and junior associates were not considering the full legal picture before telling me what they propose to advise the client. But that is where the commercial acumen comes in. I do expect my trainees to show they understand what the client's vision is and how it is our role to deliver that vision whilst negotiating the legal minefield. They show this by telling me what advice they would give the client after going through the issues. Clients do not want academic papers; they want actionable advice. Only commercial awareness allows you to give actionable advice.
So which is more important. Both and a lawyer missing one or the other will eventually fail. A lawyer with a lack in the legal knowledge department will lose clients due to negligence. A lawyer with a lack in the commercial awareness department will lose clients due to failure to deliver the client's vision swiftly, efficiently and safely; a bit like a bad cabbie.