New Labour, new lawyer

With two barristers ensconced at 10 Downing Street, admittedly one non-practising, and a record number of lawyers in Parliament, it seems the legal profession is in for a radical era.

Lawyers are in a bullish mood. Research shows lawyers have advised on more privatisations around the world during the past year than ever before. And there is obviously an increase in business, which is funding the recent salary hikes for the leading City firms.

This hike has been caused partly by the shortage of good lawyers, which is a hangover from when the recession struck and there were widespread redundancies. But also, more recently, salary rises have been fuelled by many of the US firms wielding their wallet-power and cherry-picking from City firms.

And it is not just the odd individual jumping ship to Stateside firms. It is occurring on a wholesale basis, with US firm Weil Gotshal & Manges setting up in the City with almost all of the partners and fee-earners coming from major City players. What was once a trickle has now become a steady stream of one-way traffic from City to US firms, with only a small number going the other way.

But most of the growth in the UK has been through mergers – a decade after the first Top 100, the legal profession is in better shape than for many years. The cliche that size is everything has been one of the main driving forces during the past 10 years. And expansion has not only occurred in legal practice. Rumours have been rife that Arthur Andersen's law firm Garretts is in talks with any number of law firms both north and south of the border. The growth of this virtual MDP in four years resulted in its debut in the Top 100 this year, signalling that the accountancy threat is real. And this encroachment is not just a UK phenomenon – the global aspects have come to the fore with rumours of four leading US law firms approaching Big Six accountancy firm Price Waterhouse with a view to a link-up by merger or association.

If nothing else, 1997 has seen the survival of the fittest. Travers Smith Braithwaite managing partner Alasdair Douglas, whom The Lawyer spoke to in its first issue, comments: “the main event during the past 10 years is that the legal profession in London and in the major centres had to work through a recession.

“Firms were brought up short by the realisation that their growth in income, numbers of partners, numbers of staff and the fees that clients were willing to pay would not be exponential forever. The main benefit to come out of this has been increased efficiency and the clients have been the beneficiaries.”

With everyone looking forward, and anticipating expansion, both financially and internationally, it should be remembered that internal management remains a key factor. City firm Linklaters & Paines introduced flexible working for male and female partners, and DJ Freeman offered its staff a new confidential counselling service to combat stress.

Clifford Chance and Davies Arnold Cooper were the only two law firms included in the Corporate Research Foundation's new ranking of the UK's best employers, with DAC the only law firm in both the Top UK Employers and Top 100 Companies of the Future.

Senior partner at DAC, David McIntosh, comments: “Lawyers must have the ability to treat the need to change the way in which they provide legal services as an opportunity and not a threat.”

Like the Chinese who have their own radical change to overcome with the handover of Hong Kong in July, the legal profession across the globe can look forward to living in extremely interesting times.