From Blair to modernity

“Go back to 1997,” said Tony Blair last week. “Think back. No, really, think back.” With such an exhortation, how could we resist? If you were a newly qualified solicitor in 1997 then you were part of a blessed generation that benefited enormously from the pace of change within the profession.

Take salaries. Newly-qualifieds, The Lawyer reported on 7 May that year, were suddenly the focus of a retention battle.

The main headline of our first issue in Blair’s first week in power ran thus: ‘Salaries spiral as club breaks up’. The ‘club’ refers to the near-cartel of information sharing among the City’s top firms, which had kept salaries stable at £27,000 for three years.

All of a sudden firms were breaking ranks, with Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance paying £30,500 and £30,000 respectively.

This was radical stuff; it certainly set the tone. Firms were now properly in competition with each other. Goodbye to port and cigar lunches for the senior partner club, hello to competition for talent. The ’97 generation benefited from the fact that the consensus was partly broken by US firms such as White & Case, which that year was offering an eye-popping £45,000.

Quite how much the legal profession has changed is not within the scope of this column. In the 10 years since Blair moved into Downing Street we have had the Human Rights Act, globalisation, the change in privacy law, the rise of London as a dominant legal centre, the irreversible decline of the partnership ethos, legal panels and external procurement initiatives by clients, as well as the transparency of career structures and of law firm financials. And that’s not the half of it.

Ten years ago The Lawyer reported that the firms with the highest number of women partners were Herbert Smith and Linklaters, each with a mere five. They now have 31 and 78 respectively.

Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found many partners worrying about female retention. The espousal of social liberalism in public discourse under a Labour government may, after all, have had some effect.