Focus: Lawyers in parliament: The Commons touch
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20 December 2005
The next intake of MPs will be very different following the general election, with plenty more Conservative lawyers at Westminster. Who is most likely to be elected?
Next summer - and possibly even sooner – voters will head to polling stations for a general election. Chances are this will be the biggest shake-up of the UK Parliament since Labour’s landslide victory in 1997.
Aside from the obvious national and international interest in the identity of the UK’s prime minister and government the day after polling day, there will also be a disproportionate amount of interest among lawyers.
Research published this month by communications consultancy Madano Partnership highlighted the backgrounds - gender, ethnicity, educational and professional - of 242 of the prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) most likely to be elected at the next general election, assuring a 7 per cent swing to the Conservatives, which would give the party a nominal majority of one. Although they come from diverse backgrounds, well over 10 per cent of the likely new intake will be lawyers.
In an era often characterised in the media by lawyer bashing, it is refreshing to be reminded that for the majority who enter the profession the public service ethos is alive and well.
Whys and wherefores
The Lawyer interviewed a selection of the PPCs and asked them why they thought lawyers appear to make good parliamentarians? Charlie Elphicke, head of European tax at Hunton & Williams and the Conservative PPC for Dover, sums it up succinctly.
“I think the qualities required are similar,” Elphicke argues. “The ability to brief yourself very quickly and on no notice. The ability to handle a meeting. To understand legislation and to propose a positive solution on the hoof.”
Elphicke, who first stood for election to Parliament in 2001 in St Albans, adds that the key attraction is the “incredibly interesting” workload.
“Plus it’s the chance to help shape a positive future and destiny of our great nation,” continues Elphicke. “There’s no greater honour than that.”
Robert Buckland, a criminal barrister at Apex Chambers in Cardiff and the Conservative PPC for Swindon South, arguably has a different perspective on the issues facing the UK than a corporate lawyer in an office halfway up the Gherkin.
During his 18-year career Buckland has become used to meeting heroin addicts, career criminals and people who have fallen through the system. He says it leaves an impact and brings a life experience that will never go away.
That said, Buckland says he believes strongly in bringing something to the table - something a lawyer from any background can do.
“Government needs a number of people from different backgrounds, but it does need people with an understanding of how the law works,” he says. “In the past 10-15 years laws have been passed without any regard as to how they’ll be implemented, such as the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Policy was passed with no delivery mechanism. It’s an example of how the passing of laws can bear no relation to reality, no joined-up thinking.”
Both lawyers are convinced there is a strong public service ethic inherent in most lawyers, regardless of where they work.
“Very much so,” Elphicke says, “and it’s not necessarily any less true of those who work in the City. Yes, some lawyers are just interested in the money, but most aren’t. The basic description of the job and the reasons for doing it are still the same.”
A view for a skill
So life experiences may differ, but the skill sets stay the same. Halliwells assistant and property specialist Jake Berry, the Conservative PPC for Rossendale and Darwen, believes there are two core jobs of an MP and that both arguably benefit from lawyers’ skills.
“The first is to be an advocate of last resort for constituents and be their personal representative at Westminster,” argues Berry. “That’s the public service element, which ties in clearly to the role of the lawyer.”
The training of a lawyer obviously helps with this.
“At the very least,” adds Berry, “it teaches you how to write quite a good letter, how to draw the facts out of someone and how to boil down beyond the story to the key facts at the root of the problem. It’s the wood from the trees argument.”
Clearly it also it gives any potential MP a knowledge of the legal system and lets them know where to go and who to see to get things done. Handy in a legislative assembly.
Berry says his other point, as a prospective Conservative MP, is to try to improve people’s lives by ensuring the minimum amount of government interference and holding it to account.
But while he believes there is a close match between the skill sets required to be an MP and a lawyer, Berry says the last thing we need is for every member of Parliament to be a lawyer. “Please God it doesn’t preclude people from other walks of life becoming an MP,” he adds. “What’s required is a broad base.”
According to Madano’s list of PPCs, barristers and solicitors are likely to be equally present in the next intake. Do any of the current crop believe that the advocacy skills of our learned friends lend themselves to public life more than their law firm cousins? Hunton’s Elphicke for one thinks not.
“There’s no great difference as far as I can see,” he contends. “Maybe barristers are more naturally attuned to public speaking if they do a lot of court work, but I don’t think there’s an enormous difference.”
That is a line echoed by Helen Grant, the founder of Croydon-based firm Grants Solicitors, a specialist practice focusing on family law, property and community care.
“Perhaps barristers are particularly attracted to apply for selection because many have strong advocacy skills in debating and presenting a case, which presumably they believe will translate well in the House of Commons,” argues Grant, the Conservative PPC for Maidstone and The Weald. “I want to contribute, to give something back. Having spent the past 20 years as a family and community lawyer working with some of the most needy and vulnerable people in our society, I believe I have something to offer.”
According to Joanne Cash, a barrister at One Brick Court and the Conservative PPC for Westminster North, lawyers make good MPs because they have the wherewithal and knowledge of who and where to go to. Lawyers’ skills are also clearly needed to supervise the drafting of legislation - in fact, there are worries in certain corners about whether the next government will have enough.
But regardless of whether or not they have rights of audience, Cash is convinced that it is lawyers’ experience per se that makes them good MPs. “I find that most issues that people bring to MPs’ surgeries are legal-related, whether it’s immigration or property-related, or whatever it might be,” she argues.
Regardless of the undoubted skills the legally trained PPCs could bring to Parliament, the flip side of being elected - for employed lawyers at least - will be the impact on their employers.
The likelihood is that, if these lawyers were to become MPs, it would mean a temporary and possibly permanent hold on their legal careers. How comfortable have their superiors been with that prospect?
Halliwells’ Berry says his firm has allowed him the flexibility to pursue politics. “All law firms should take that approach,” he argues. “It helps them to hang on to their staff.”
Berry says Halliwells allowed him to work from home when necessary and has been very flexible in terms of meeting the firm’s requirements.
“It’s a huge time commitment to be a prospective MP and it’s critical to have an employer who believes it’s important to pursue outside interests as well as fulfilling your obligations,” Berry adds. “This doesn’t have to apply to politics. It could be charity or a host of things. It’s the work-life balance, which may be a tired old phrase these days, but it’s still important. Get your employer on board early and you can add to the business with your outside interests as well as with your work obligations.”
Over at Hunton, Elphicke says his firm has also been extremely supportive. “US firms tend to be very committed to the idea of public service - they generally see it as a good thing,” adds Elphicke. “UK firms are generally more cynical.”
When The Lawyer asked Elphicke how Hunton had helped, he replies: “Patience.”
Clearly a virtue for law firms and, potentially, for the electorate.
A selection of the prospective parliamentary candidates
Twenty-five of the 242 PPCs in Madano’s report, the ‘Class of 2010’, are qualified lawyers:
- Steve Barclay, Conservative, solicitor, Financial Services Authority
- Jake Berry, Conservative, solicitor, Halliwells
- Robert Buckland, Conservative, barrister, Apex Chambers, Cardiff
- Joanne Cash, Conservative, barrister, One Brick Court
- Rehman Chishti, Conservative, barrister, Goldsmith Chambers
- Jeffrey Clarke, Conservative, barrister, New Bailey Chambers, Liverpool
- Alberto Costa, Conservative, solicitor
- Michael Ellis, Conservative, criminal barrister, Clarendon Chambers
- Charlie Elphicke, Conservative, partner, Hunton & Williams
- Jonathan Evans, Conservative, former solicitor at Leo Abse & Cohen, Cardiff
- Annabelle Ewing, Scottish Nationalist, consultant solicitor, Leslie Wolfson & Co
- Helen Grant, Conservative, founder, Grants Solicitors
- Gareth Johnson, Conservative, solicitor, Thomas Boyd Whyte
- Shabana Mahmood, Labour, barrister, Berrymans Lace Mawer
- Nicky Morgan, Conservative, corporate professional support lawyer, Travers Smith
- Guy Opperman, Conservative, barrister, 3 Paper Buildings
- Yasmin Qureshi, Labour, barrister, Kenworthy’s Chambers
- Simon Reevell, Conservative, barrister, 39 Park Square Chambers, Leeds
- John Stevenson, Conservative, partner, Bendles Solicitors, Carlisle
- Karl Turner, Labour, barrister, The Max Gold Partnership, Hull
- Chuka Umunna, Labour, solicitor, Rochman Landau
- James Wharton, Conservative, solicitor, BHP Law