How I went from trainee to associate - from computing science to law

Stephen Duff, Associate in Foreign and Travel

When I first went to university I had no intention of becoming a lawyer, and now I help people with my legal knowledge on a daily basis.

When I left school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and certainly had no plans to pursue a career in law.

I ended up going to study computer science, purely because it was the subject I had done best in at school.

Despite doing well in this, I took an optional module in business law and by the end of my first year, I took the difficult decision to change my degree entirely. These would be my first steps to becoming a lawyer and I have never looked back.

Coming to the decision to study law so late in the day had its difficulties

I found myself competing with students who had wanted to become a lawyer since they first watched Ally McBeal. Many had come to university with a number of law firm summer placements under their belt and certainly more connections to the profession than I had.

There was always pressure to study hard but I also had to find the time to undertake the activities that would show my drive to become a lawyer out with the academic.

Having never set foot in a lawyer’s office, finding relevant work experience and opportunities to enter debates at university, student council etc. were essential. I recall many evenings trawling the internet for relevant legal/summer placements, but this ultimately paid off when I interned at the Writers to the Signet Library in Edinburgh.

I was sure I wanted to become a criminal lawyer…but I was wrong

As I reached the end of my studies the profession was under pressure following the 2007 – 2008 financial crisis.

Traineeships were scarce and I had been accepted at Edinburgh University to begin a Masters in Criminal Law. I had developed an academic love of both civil and criminal litigation during my studies and felt sure practicing criminal law was the next step in my career.

Thankfully for me, I was wrong.

Knowing Digby Brown’s reputation in civil litigation, I had also applied for a traineeship two years down the line, which is still common practice.

Quite unexpectedly I was then informed that due to growth in a specialist department they required an additional trainee commencing that year.

When faced with the opportunity to either pursue further study or to actually practice litigation, I put everything into making sure that I got that traineeship.

Beginning my traineeship as an industrial disease solicitor

I spent my two year traineeship specialising in industrial disease litigation and continued in this area for a number of years post qualification.

This was primarily Court of Session work involving those injured by asbestos exposure or suffering from conditions such as noise induced deafness, hand arm vibration syndrome etc.

Whilst it was sometimes difficult to see the terrible impact of asbestos related diseases, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, I took great pride in being able to help my clients however I could. At Digby Brown, we would make home visits and work with local asbestos support groups/charities to make the process as easy as possible.

Particularly in claims for terminal conditions, like mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer, I know that many clients took great comfort in finally having their employers held to account for ignoring the serious dangers of exposing them to asbestos. Securing compensation would also provide some financial support for their families once they were gone, something that was often a huge weight on their mind. I always felt very privileged to work in that area of personal injury law.

I took a position at a commercial law firm

Over time I wished to spread my wings and gain a broader experience of the law. I took a position at a commercial firm although still in a litigation role.

Despite this, I found myself gravitating back towards personal injury work wherever I could find it. Whilst I had many good experiences in that role, eventually it was clear that personal injury law was what I was meant to be doing.

Whilst achieving good results for large companies is great, achieving a good result for an injured person and their family has always been more satisfying to me.

A year or so later, I was looking to return to personal injury work and was fortunate to find that Digby Brown had a vacancy in their Foreign & Travel Department. Knowing the quality of the people within the firm I took this as a golden opportunity to broaden my experience and to practice a new and niche area of personal injury litigation. 

When I returned to the firm I was able to hit the ground running given my knowledge of its systems and my experience. This allowed me to delve straight into the new and interesting legal challenges in front of me. Since joining the team I have dealt with a broad range of complex claims involving accidents abroad. This could be anything from a road traffic accident to an injury onboard a plane. These cases often have a number of interesting points to them, over and above the obvious jurisdiction and applicable law issues that arise. I have also drawn upon my previous experience with disease claims when pursuing compensation for illnesses contracted abroad. This includes claims at all ends of the spectrum, even fatal cases involving legionella outbreaks.

From trainee to Associate

Since returning to Digby Brown I have also engaged in product liability work and was promoted to Associate in May 2022.

Whilst my path to becoming an Associate has not been straight forward, I have found myself in the very fortunate position of working for an excellent firm in an area of law that I find both interesting and rewarding.

A career with Digby Brown: Summer Placements and traineeships

For those thinking of applying for a summer placement or traineeship with Digby Brown I would say ‘Go for it!’ I have always felt supported by the firm in my development and the work that we do can make a genuine difference to people’s lives. Something I definitely think provides a level of job satisfaction that you can’t find in every job.

Stephen Duff, Associate

Foreign and Travel