… but privatisation helps

The most enduring legacy of Thatcherism and the Thatcher decade could well be privatisation. At the beginning of 1992 it was estimated that around $25bn of public assets went private, and there was cautious optimism that this was at least one growth area to sustain lawyers through the recession.

The CCT provisions, which were put forward in a consultation document, were another of the few positive moves for lawyers, who were also eyeing up Eastern Europe. In the year of the Maastricht treaty, Europe in general was very much on the agenda.

There were also changes in the top legal posts, with Barbara Mills QC appointed DPP, George Staple from Clifford Chance taking over from Barbara Mills as director of the SFO, and Lord Taylor appointed Lord Chief Justice, taking over from Lord Lane.

Also at the top of the profession, the introduction of the Judith (judges IT help project) and the increasingly widespread use of IT by judges was seen as having a ripple effect, with judges being set up as “role model users of IT” for others in the legal profession to follow.

On the Top 100 front, when Eversheds finally merged it ranked second after Clifford Chance, dislodging Linklaters & Paines. It was not just law firms that were being proactive – 2 Harcourt Buildings merged with Belgian set Stanbrook & Hooper; Manches & Co joined Carter Faber; Pannone & Partners was formed by the merger of Pannone March Pearson and Pritchard Englefield and Tobin.

Despite the pick-up in merger activity there were still redundancy announcements by firms, with Turner Kenneth Brown making the third such unfortunate announcement in just over a year.

A survey showed a sharp profit slump hitting firms outside the south. Using median figures, profits fell 34 per cent to £22,000 in the north over 1990/91. A typical partner in the north was estimated to have a profit share of about £52,000 – about a third of his London counterpart. And growth in the in-house teams had come to a virtual standstill, with 84 per cent foreseeing no real change in size during the year. In the US, American Lawyer reported that there had been an overall decline in partners' profits, which fell 6 per cent to $400,000 in 1991, while revenues per lawyer fell $1,000 to $371,000 from $372,000.

Poaching by US firms continued, with senior partner Christopher Haan and two other partners leaving SJ Berwin to join Coudert Brothers. Shearman & Sterling was headhunting senior lawyers in top London firms to develop an English banking practice.

Lawyers who had made headlines by appearing in court themselves had mixed fortunes – four of the remaining five defendants were found guilty in the Blue Arrow trial, but charges against Travers Smith Braithwaite partner Alan Keat were dropped on the grounds that there was no case for him to answer.

Other solicitors were less fortunate – Essex solicitor Derek Chisnall was jailed for seven years for stealing more than £1m from clients. The court heard how Chisnall, who owned a Porsche and a string of racehorses, boasted to a colleague: “I am a thief but I have had a good life and a good run.” Meanwhile regional firm Durnford Ford was being investigated, and the senior partner Graham Ford resigned.

Legal aid wrangling continued, with the Law Society claiming that the number of people squeezed out of eligibility was well over 12 million.

Legal aid practitioners came out against fixed fees for magistrates court work; and a new inspectorate for the magistrates courts was planned. There were calls for the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on legal aid to be abolished, and unsurprisingly, the Criminal Justice Act was slammed by lawyers.

On the legal education front, Newcastle Polytechnic was set to run the first four-year exempting law degree. Later in the year, the College of Law started tentative negotiations with other institutions to set up an exempting law degree.

The Legal Services Ombudsman's first annual report said he received over 1,200 complaints, double the number in 1991.

A survey of the top 500 law firms showed that 73 per cent of firms responding expected their profitability to be hit severely if a Labour Government was returned, while only 18 per cent expected a decrease under a Conservative regime.

Post-election, Sir Nicholas Lyell QC was appointed Attorney General – he later became embroiled in the Matrix-Churchill case with the then Lord Justice Scott, putting together his inquiry team. Lord Mackay stayed on, with John Taylor MP appointed to the new post of under-secretary to the LCD, and barrister Paul Boateng was shadow parliamentary secretary at the LCD.

Finally, there was good news again for those at the very top of the profession (unless, apparently, you were a senior judge) – the Judicial Pensions and Retirements Bill brought the retirement age of judges down to 70.