The Regional Lawyer's Tale

John Crabtree: senior partner, Wragge & Co

For a week's work in 1971, Crabtree received from Wragge & Co the princely sum of £8. He wasn't complaining, however, because he knew there were others who were worse off. Indeed, at other firms, there were still articled clerks who were paying their principals for the privilege of being a dog's body for two years.

Even though man had set foot the moon, articled clerks were still expected to be gentlemen of substance who could finance their way through articles. Crabtree remembers the story of "a bloke who was at a London firm and skint. He wanted to ask for more money and spent weeks plucking up courage. He went eventually to a partner and explained his financial position. The partner looked up from his desk and said, 'I don't know why you're talking to me! Go and see your trustee!'"

At Wragge & Co in the early 1970s, the class system was still a force to be reckoned with, acknowledges Crabtree. Partners and staff kept their distance. "It was very much master and servant," he muses. The Wragges partners were nice people, but they were also intimidating.

With the senior partner busy being Lord Mayor of Birmingham, the firm was run by a particularly intimidating partner by the name of James Whiting-Smith. He, says Crabtree, was "a very talented lawyer with very high standards and, therefore, very difficult to please". Especially since no one ever quite knew where they stood with Mr Whiting-Smith. "You were 'Crabtree' one day and 'John' the next and then you'd go back to 'Crabtree'. And even when I became a partner, I could still be 'Crabtree' sometimes."

Still, Whiting-Smith had high hopes for the young Crabtree, who recalls that "when he gave me a partnership he said 'You'll do well, because you live in Edgbaston.' He obviously thought I knew lots of wealthy Edgbastonians".

In an era when marketing was unknown, connections were important. Lawyers found potential clients among friends and at social events. A partner's clients "grew up with them', says Crabtree. "It was a nice way to carry on business. They looked after fathers and sons of fathers and sons of sons of fathers." Partners were highly possessive and did not share clients. The partners at Wragges "were barristers in chambers, really. They ran their own practices. It was my client, my practice". As the Law Society gradually removed the restrictions on advertising, so things began to change, albeit slowly. "When they first lifted the rules, you could do certain things, but they had to be in good taste," laughs Crabtree. "It was fantastic. Only the Law Society could suggest something like that. Who was going to be in charge of good taste?" But few law firms were in a hurry to exploit their freedom. "Everyone was terribly sniffy about it and not much went on. No one advertised for a long time. Then people started doing the odd brochure. Even in 1990, we only had one person in our marketing department, and she was only doing three days a week."