Insult to injury?
25 April 2005
The camera fixes on a very satisfied-looking Andrew Twambley, one of two partners at Manchester personal injury (PI) boutique Amelans, as he wafts an envelope before his nostrils and gives it a good sniff. "Yes, it smells rather tasty," he says. The solicitor then rips it open to reveal a cheque for £211,262 in settlement for one of his client's accident claims. Another satisfied customer. So begins a new fly-on-the-wall documentary, which starts on BBC2 next month.
No doubt there will be those elder statesmen of PI law who will be mortified to learn that perhaps the most outspoken and aggressive firm of solicitors has been selected by the Beeb to represent the profession. The television crew spent six months at the firm's Didsbury offices, which specialise in, as its lawyers put it, "slips, trips, crashes and bashes". The series No Win, No Fee is subtitled Five half-hours in the company of the Rottweilers of the PI industry.
"There were mutterings in the higher echelons of the profession that, knowing who we were, we might show PI lawyers in a bad light," admits Twambley. In the first programme he is described by BBC DJ Mark Radcliffe in the voiceover as "the millionaire lawyer with a home on the Cheshire footballers' belt and a car to match". Twambley adds: "My argument has always been: how could it get any worse?"
The Manchester firm has never possessed the typical solicitor's reserve concerning self-promotion. When The Lawyer last visited Twambley and his co-partner Martin Cockx three years ago, they were keen to make the point that this was no run-of-the-mill solicitors' practice. It was shortly after the firm was centre-stage in a major standoff with the insurance industry in the landmark Callery v Gray case. They cast their firm as the Russell Crowe character Maximus to the insurance industry's evil Roman empire in the then box office hit Gladiator. Since then Amelans has taken a series of test cases to the House of Lords and established the leading marketing network for PI firms InjuryLawyers4U (IL4U).
Cockx took a back seat in the filming of the series fearing a stitch-up, but Twambley had no such qualms. There are moments in the series where viewers will think they have inadvertently flicked over to a previously unseen episode of The Office, with Twambley cast as a solicitor version of David Brent. In episode one, he explains how much he loves being surrounded by "this constant enthusiasmÃ¢Â€Â¦ rumbling like a volcano about to explode, and occasionally it does". On cue, the camera pans round to a bored-looking secretary and a spotty paralegal yawning. Meanwhile, the solicitor likens his staff to "a coiled viperÃ¢Â€Â¦ calm but dangerous". The office, too, has an uncanny resemblance to the fictional Slough paper wholesaler Wernham Hogg.
Twambley admits to "a degree of self-parody" in his approach to the filming of the documentary. "In the dry business of the law, I think people need to do that," he says. "There are a lot of characterless faces about in this profession; there needs to be a few people willing to take the piss out of themselves." The firm was picked from 20 law practices. At one point it was decided that there was going to be a joint documentary with another firm, but Amelans refused to share the spotlight. Twambley is genuinely happy with the end product, and apparently Cockx is also pleased. It reduces 270 hours of filming to a series of five half-hour shows. "Obviously it's heavily edited, but they haven't edited offensively - apart from the bit with me in my shorts," he adds.
But why take the risk and let the cameras in at all? According to Twambley, the image of PI lawyers is of "ambulance-chasing fat cat bastards who are totally unapproachable". "We try to dispel that rumour, certainly where it concerns Amelans of Manchester, and hopefully it improves the image of the PI lawyer in the country [held by people] who read the Daily Mail and hate PI lawyers." As he points out, many people do not understand how pointless cases are filtered out by lawyers who have no interest in running legal actions that are not going to be successful.
However, just as the tabloids fixate on the most trivial and entertaining claims, so too does the BBC. The first programme concentrates on telling the story of a Geordie country and western singer who is shot accidentally in a pretend shoot-out at the end of a gig ('The Showdown at the Hoedown') rather than that of a brain-damaged young girl in a car crash. "Most of the cases you see [in the programme] are funny in many respects," the solicitor says. "The BBC is an entertainments company and long, boring lawyer cases just wouldn't interest them."
Nevertheless, claimant lawyers will be happy that their concerns are dealt with in Amelans' typically abrupt style. The second programme offers the firm a platform to attack the inability of the media to distinguish between dodgy claims companies (run by "former timeshares salesman", as Twambley puts it) and genuine solicitors' firms. He also makes the critical point that accident victims should never be ripped off by law firms (or claims companies) by taking legal costs out of their damages - a principle the firm has always stuck to. The lawyer also has the opportunity to articulate frustrations with defendant insurers doing their best to avoid paying their fees, which will strike a chord with claimant lawyers everywhere.
Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of concentration on how well Twambley has done out of the business - flash Jag, nice house and acres of pinstripe suits. The programme also reveals that the lawyer has a collection of Errol Flynn memorabilia. Why the affection for the movie star? "He was a swashbuckler like me, constantly running around with his sword," he answers. But does that concentration on personal wealth detract from the impression that PI lawyers are acting in the best interests of their clients? "No. There's no penalty for success," he says in true David Brent style. And is he bothered about how he might be seen? "Not at all," he says. "It takes a lot to offend me." Clearly.