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  • Writer's pictureCardiff JLD

JLD Talks: Coffee and a Cake with David Dixon

How did your career in law begin?

My parents emigrated to Canada when I was a child, so I went to school and University there, though I always planned to return to the UK to live and work. I did an English degree at the University of Toronto and got a place in Cardiff to study Law in 1977. There weren’t any difficulties in coming over. I didn’t have a work permit but didn’t need one. I had my birth certificate and my passport so nobody questioned it! I did work experience in Carmarthen in 1979 and was offered a training contract which I accepted – I knew the firm and Carmarthen was a nice town. I was doing mostly civil work, they gave me files to read and I sat behind Counsel. In 1980, when I was about to start the Solicitors’ Finals course, the chap reneged on it and I was left without a training contract. In those days, virtually everyone had a training contract when they started the Solicitors’ Finals (the course preceding the LPC). I sent 200 letters to firms throughout south Wales but this effort yielded only half a dozen unsuccessful interviews. I was still looking in August 1981.

In August 1981, after I had finished my studies but before my results were released, I wandered around town to look for a training contract. I ended up at Phillips and Buck’s Birchgrove office, where the senior partner was based. He saw me – and remembered my earlier interview when he’d told me the vacancy they’d had was filled. I must have made a decent impression on him – I was hot, sweaty, longhaired and unshaven. I knew he was in the Naval Reserve so I made sure I was sitting with my shoulders back, as if at attention! He told me he would ‘see what he could do’ and 2-3 days later, I had an offer for a training contract to start in September. I was very lucky and I used to say to students not to give up and to wander around and knock on doors if they were desperate. A couple of students did this and got them. It doesn’t happen very often, but it happens.

After that awful experience with looking for a training contract, I always worried I wouldn’t get a job when the training contract ended. I was quiet and working for a big firm. I was good at my job and worked hard, but so were and did the others. Other trainees were more confident and outgoing than me, so were more likely to be taken on. However, I got lucky. I was active in the Trainee Solicitors Group (TSG) – I was the Vice Chairman of the national TSG (the TSG and Young Solicitors Group were the forerunners of the JLD, which was formed in 2008 when the two groups merged) and I campaigned for raising the minimum salary for trainee solicitor (which the SRA ended 10 years ago). So although I feared I might be seen as a troublemaker, I think the firm was impressed and they told me they would be hiring me as an assistant solicitor when I had six months remaining in my training contract. This was a massive relief and big boost to my confidence.

I never thought about qualifying as a barrister. There were far fewer pupillages than training contracts, pupils were paid (if they were paid at all) far less than trainee solicitors and I was put off by stories of the dining at the Inns of Court. I have never regretted qualifying as a solicitor rather than a barrister. I practised in Civil Litigation, I worked Monday through Friday and on Sundays. Originally, my work was claimant personal injury work mixed with commercial litigation but after I moved to a firm in Newport when I became a partner, it was mostly claimant PI and housing cases. The world of practice was very different then. Civil legal aid was available to pay my client’s costs if I didn’t obtain a costs order from the opponent. District Judges were called registrars. Fee earners did not have computers and there was no such thing as internet or email. There were no fax machines (which people used before email) when I started in 1981. There were no telephone hearings. There were separate rules of Court for the High Court and the County Court. There were no mobile phones and we did not wear backpacks, we carried briefcases instead.

What made you want to transition from a solicitor to a lecturer?

I realised that private practice wasn’t for me and I wasn’t enjoying myself. I left it in 1991. Like a lot people, I didn’t enjoy asking clients for money and I disliked the constant pressure to earn costs. My firm in Newport set a weekly costs target for each fee earner and we had to report this to the managing partner. I kept a cumulative total for the year. If you achieved the target, it was increased the next year because it was too low. If you did not hit your target, you got a bollocking!

In my penultimate year of practice, I was exceeding my costs target so it was increased, with retrospective effect which put me into deficit. I worked very hard to make the target at the end of the financial year. There was a recession in 1991 and our commercial lawyers moved to another firm so pressure was placed on the civil litigators to earn more (conveyancers could not because of the steep fall in house sales). My target was raised by 15% and I was ordered not to raise my charging rate so I was going to have to work a 7 day week. I refused and that was basically the end of my time with the firm. I went to work for a local authority (which was a stopgap) and then the University sought validation to teach the newly created LPC. I was part of the team which won validation for the LPC and applied successfully for the lecturer post I worked at for the next 28 years until retirement.

I also had some bad experiences as a newly qualified solicitor. I fell out very badly with a senior solicitor (who later became a District Judge) and he made my life hell, both before he became a Judge and afterwards. I won’t bore you with the details of how and why, other than to say it concerned the setting aside of the Consent Order. I don’t think such a dispute would arise today as I expect everyone who agrees to the disposal of an application to Court to confirm agreement via email (they certainly should!) and this incident occurred before the two firms had fax machines, let alone email. District Judges can make life very unpleasant indeed if they do not like you. I lost every Hearing where I appeared before him, which I did not have with any other District Judge. He was also consistently hostile. So if you’re going to fall out badly with a solicitor (which I do not recommend!) make sure it is not someone who could hold this position. Rest assured, they retired years ago.

I worked as a solicitor in private practice for 8 years, and then worked as an assistant solicitor at Mid Glamorgan County Council. I did childcare work for 18 months. I didn’t know anything about it but no one else did either, as the Children Act 1989 was coming into force so the law was new and it was an ideal time to start work in this area. I did not like the stultifying bureaucracy of working in the local authority, I was used to office efficiency. There was no such thing as Mid Glamorgan at the time. Once, I needed a cheque signed so I could be reimbursed for expenses. That was never a problem in private practice but it was a major undertaking at the local authority. They had run out of cheques! But we had a lot of fun there, so although there wasn’t always a lot to do, it was pleasurable by and large.

It wasn’t going to last, as local government reorganisation in Wales was announced while I worked for the local authority. I became the first ‘rat’ in legal services to leave the sinking ship, when I left in 1993 to join Cardiff University just after it had been validated to teach LPC. Three of us started on 1st February. Teaching started on 15th September so we didn’t have much time to write the course. We were trained to write teaching material and we held ‘dummy teaching lessons’ during the first six months so we were very busy. I had a little teaching experience as I had taught and administered the CPD course as Education Officer for Monmouthshire Law Society.

What was your experience at Cardiff University like?

Writing exam papers was strange but marking them was even worse! I got along with the majority of my colleagues and we spent a lot of time together. I remember my second to last lesson (you, Hannah, were one of the students) which was on the enforcement of foreign judgments. This was still being written the day that I taught it. The lesson was in May 2021 and the law on this subject was altered substantially on 31st December 2020 when the UK left the EU. I had to work from primary sources on the internet as no textbooks or practitioner texts such as the White Book contained the new rules. There were new regulations in place and nobody knew what they were as no one was prepared. I had to go searching for CPR updates, practice directions and the like, and I wasn’t sure if I had all of it, but I was fairly certain I did in the end. I heard later that many LPC Commercial Litigation courses were more pragmatic than mine and simply taught the old law as they knew it had been right, instead of trying to find out the new rules!

Every year, I went through my old slides and tweaked them to make sure they were as easy to read as possible and engaged people. My job was to make the more mundane parts of law seem interesting. I found it difficult during lockdown because it was the first time I didn’t recognise my students face to face, as they didn’t have a square screen around them!

I think a lot of students didn’t realise that I wanted them to express their opinions, especially in exams. It shows they’re listening and have given some thought to what they were reading and being taught. I enjoyed writing case studies for my courses and trying to make them as realistic as possible. I liked teaching and writing. I didn’t like marking. I think all my former colleagues would share this view.

My admiration for private practitioners increased the longer I was at Cardiff University. One of my jobs was to act as a liaison between the centre where I worked and the solicitors’ profession. Although senior figures at the law school thought I did badly at this, I thought I did a pretty good job. I was the first law lecturer at a University to be elected as council member of the Law Society and I was the Chairman of the old regional Law Society, the Confederation of South Wales Law Societies (which no longer exists) and president of the local Law Society. I chaired the management committee of a CAB and served on the management committee of Cardiff Law Centre. Could I have done more? Of course I could. But I did quite a bit.

Private practice wasn’t for me, so I admire those who are able to thrive at it and do well for their clients. It is not an easy job.

Is there a memorable part of your career?

Five things stand out for me:

1.       Attaining partnership in my old firm in 1989;

2.       Being part of  the team which was awarded an excellent rating by the Law Society for the Cardiff LPC in 1997;

3.       Serving as Chairman of the Law Society’s Wales Committee from 2011-2014;

4.       Being president of Cardiff and District Law Society in 2015-2016; and

5.       Winning the Simon Mumford Memorial Award in 2019.

I also enjoyed developing expertise in Housing Law. I was self-taught. Particulars of claim in local authority possession cases in Newport always stated that notices seeking possession had been served in accordance with the relevant regulations. No one in Newport questioned this. I was the guy who was enough of an anorak to look up the regulations, and guess what? Newport’s notice did not comply. This gave my clients a defence which no one else’s clients had. I managed to keep these tenants in their homes for a little longer. I was proud of that.

Anything you wish you’d done differently?

I wish I’d got on with people better than I did. Clearly, it was not a sensible career move to anger a solicitor who later became a District Judge. But I was right, so I’m proud I did what I did, even though it was bad for my career. You have to be able to lie with yourself. But that’s the only regret, apart from wishing that I liked the commercial world far better than I did, in which case I might have stayed at Phillips and Buck, who became Eversheds, and been a lot richer and more successful!

How do you feel about the Cardiff legal scene?

I have made several lifelong friends, especially my colleagues in Cardiff University. We wrote our course from scratch. It was hard work but I’m glad we did it and we are proud that our course was rated excellent by the Law Society within its first four years (and retained that rating until the SRA discontinued it).

There are a lot of good friends that are still around. I won the Simon Mumford Memorial Award in 2019 which was a complete surprise. I knew I had been nominated the year before, but didn’t think I should have won this as I’d initiated the award and drafted the terms of reference. But I’m very grateful to have won it. Simon Mumford was a good bloke, and a good person. I accepted the award and hadn’t prepared anything to say, but you didn’t have to give a speech. I had a lot of friends I knew supporting me there, so I didn’t feel like it was daunting.

I am glad that the Trainee Solicitors Group and Young Lawyers Group merged (now the JLD) as this was the right thing to do. The most important thing is to make contacts and to realise that everyone around you is backing you and supporting you in your successes.

The Cardiff legal world is much larger, with many more areas of expertise than when I started my training contract in 1981. There is greater confidence in the legal expertise within Wales and some of that is attributable to devolution and the Administrative Court in Wales. I am optimistic about the future for legal services in Cardiff, though I lament the closure of Cardiff Law Centre several years ago.


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