3 November 2003
The Lawyer's search for a new TV at the cheapest possible price led us to a backstreet warehouse in an evil part of town; too poor for charity shops, and the smartest window displays belonged to the solicitors. "In trouble with the police?" enquired the neat writing on the glass. "24-hour call out. Arrests, provocation, suspicion. We'll be there."
I wondered aloud whether anyone ever trained to be a lawyer with a view to owning a shop like that.
"Well, they might have had principles when they started out," said the Lawyer, reasonably. I had a sudden glimpse of the other side, where solicitors would choose to work with people you couldn't possibly invite to dinner. Of course, the Lawyer works with people like that too, but he charges them £250 an hour for it.
"Just think of that," I said. "Principles. It's magnificent, really."
The Lawyer must have thought so too, because within a week he had signed up to the firm's pro bono programme, after years of deriding it as a vehicle for assistants on the make.
What a shock awaited him, though: I think he had visions of dusting off Smith and Hogan: Criminal Law and advising defendants on what to wear in the dock - perhaps even lending them one of his older silk ties if he was feeling particularly generous - and putting bright young adolescents on the path to righteousness. Instead he found himself wielding a paint brush and a tin of white gloss at the local primary school in the firm's community regeneration programme.
He came home with gloss paint all over his second-best suit. "Isn't Daddy brave," said Liability. "Risking his clothing for poor people."
"It's clearing graveyards next week," said the Lawyer gloomily, and went to dig out his old jeans in preparation.
As the weeks went by, however, a new man emerged. Clearing the graveyards of two decades of brambly undergrowth made him realise how unfit he had become. This was soon remedied, however, by hours of manual labour at a variety of voluntary institutions: he had to catch escaped goats at the urban farm, rebuild a wall demolished by joyriders at the local hospice and repaint an entire children's playground torched by yobs.
He became impatient for Wednesdays, refused to do any paid work if it took him away from the pro bono stuff, and was soon appointed team leader. He immediately reorganised the system, which seconded people to tasks they didn't want to do and weren't equipped for, and created specialist teams of people who actually liked working together. He abolished meetings. He negotiated a grant with the council and instituted fair bonuses for work brought in and done under time and to budget. Within six months there wasn't a window frame in the city that needed repainting (except on our house) and the firm's staff were clamouring to be let in on the project. "It's better run than the firm itself," explained one eager assistant, calling round with a bribe of home-baked chocolate brownies.
He made the local newspapers and the trade mags, several times, which is always insulting to the firm's top brass, who expect to be in there as a matter of course, and questions were asked about the Lawyer's commitment to his paid work. Within hours the pro bono project was no more. But the Lawyer is hopeful his management skills have been noticed. I've told him not to count on it: management hates it when you can do the job better than they can - and charging nothing for it doesn't help his case at all.