Let all the troubles begin
6 October 1997
This year promised to be a watershed in the history of the legal profession - three Government Green Papers appeared: on the rights of audience in the higher courts, fusion of the two branches of the profession, MDPs, the eligibility of solicitors for the High Court bench and the future of the probate monopoly.
Other papers examined the possibility of contingency fees and permitting building societies and banks to do conveyancing. In other words, this is when all the troubles began.
The Bar appointed Saatchi and Saatchi to spearhead its opposition to Lord Mackay's Green Paper on reform of the legal profession. They set up a £1m fund, and 90 per cent of the 2,000 firms asked for backing agreed to give it. The Law Society's provisional response included a proposal for a Legal Affairs Commission, independent of both the Government and the profession, and set up to monitor and comment on shortcomings in legal services from the consumer's point of view. Later in the year, Scottish lawyers attacked as a threat to independence parts of the Scottish Office Green Paper on the legal profession in Scotland.
The Law Society came out fighting with a working party on the funding of litigation, recommending the statutory bars on contingency fees be removed. Rodger Pannone said: "I don't want to see the full-blown American system over here, but we should have the same rights to represent clients as they do in Scotland."
The working party urged consideration of fee agreements in commercial cases: "Our present view however (ironically, given current pressure) is that a system of charging a proportion of damages won would be likely to be appropriate only in a small minority of personal injuries cases."
And in response to the morale crisis in the Crown Prosecution Service, the CPS launched a task force to combat a 24 per cent understaffing crisis. Later in the year, the CPS offered articles and pupillages in an effort to end staff shortages, with salaries between £9,000 and £14,000.
The Lawyer revealed more than 25 per cent of the 50,000 lawyers in England and Wales work for the Top 100 law firms.
The Bar was allowed to advertise its hourly charging rates, and they could also be included in the brochures. But fees were still to be negotiated with the chambers clerks. But many chambers were still unwilling to produce brochures, let alone advertise their charges. Later in the year, accountants and surveyors had direct access to the Bar. And a leading commercial chambers, 4 Essex Court, was reported to be paying the equivalent of a City trainee salary to pupils: a £14,000 scholarship.
Lawyers in New York's largest firms averaged 2,300 billable hours a year, according to a survey by a US executive search firm. The firm polled 25 firms with over 100 lawyers. The longest working firms averaged 2,500 hours, a rise of 290 hours in the past five years.
Partner Richard Youard of Slaughter and May commented: "Every City firm, to compete, has to be very conscious of billable hours. But when I'm told that a lawyer in a New York firm averages seven and a half billable hours a day seven days a week, then I say there's more to life than averaging seven and a half hours a day." Youard later joined IMRO as a referee.
New York associates were reported to be earning $80,000, while the TSG negotiated a minimum salary in the City of £11,300 for London articled clerks. Salaries for lawyers in industry went up 11.5 per cent, top salaries ranging from £42,000 to £95,000.
Guyanese barrister Rudy Narayan sued the Lord Chancellor, the LCD, three Birmingham Crown Court judges and a courts administrator on the grounds of racism.
Bristol firm Clarke Wilmott & Clarke was instructed to act in a rash of suits from egg producers against former junior health minister Edwina Currie.
Turner Kenneth Brown merged with Lawrence Messer & Co; Birmingham firm Edge & Ellison with Staunton Townsend; and Cameron Markby with Hewitt Woollacott & Chown. Dyson Bell Martin & Co was created; Taylor Joynson Garrett was formed as Withers split up from Crossman Block Keith; and Hill Dickinson became Hill Dickinson and Hill Taylor Dickinson. Three firms in East Anglia merged to form Birketts Westhorp & Long; Hewitson Becke & Shaw was born; and Davies Wallis Foyster was created in Liverpool and Manchester.
Macfarlanes linked up with O'Melveny & Myers, in a non-exclusive association, and Lawrence Graham joined with New York firm Rosenman & Colin, with LawGroup making moves in Europe.
Lawyers from the defunct Oppenheimers set up their own practice: Fox Williams. Dibb Lupton Broomhead left the Eversheds group. Law South was set up by nine leading firms in the South of England, and Lewis Silkin split in two.
The Bar working party reported and recommended setting up an advisory committee to review the arrangements for coverage of courts and the law surrounding televising them, and set up pilot projects.
The housing slump forced high street firms to lay off domestic conveyancers, and a redundancy helpline was set up by the Young Solicitors Group.
The National Council for Civil Liberties led a campaign to stop government plans to abolish a defendant's right to silence. The Lonrho battle also led to City firms being involved, following the publication of the DTI report. Civil service lawyers wanted a pay increase comparable to the 16.5 per cent rise seen in the private sector over the past year.
In the courts, the headlines were about boardroom liability, with the P&O European Ferries case and the Dalkon shield compensations cases. Other cases included Barlow Clowes, the Marchioness and Bowbelle collision, the BAT battle, the Hoylake takeover bid and the Guildford Four case. Sonia Sutcliffe sued Private Eye, and the Lockerbie case was reported as likely to be litigated in the US.
There was the perceived threat of franchised firms under the Legal Aid Board, and for the public sector, privatisation of legal services became a reality with Government proposals on Compulsory Competitive Tendering.
"Individual and collective liability to their clients is something lawyers will give up at their peril. Liability concentrates people's minds marvellously"
James Wyness, Linklaters & Paines managing partner on incorporation
"If we could incorporate tomorrow, we wouldn't. What is important is the frame of mind. As for clients, as long as we provide good legal services, they couldn't give a damn what we do among ourselves"
Nicholas Townsend, Staunton Townsend
An eminent commercial lawyer died and made his way to the gates of heaven. "What's your age and name, snapped St Peter, not looking up from his VDU. The lawyer told him and St Peter fed in the information. "There's no record of anyone of that name who is 37," the recording angel said, looking up. "What's your occupation? A lawyer, eh? We don't get many of them. Let's try cross-referencing." Finally the man's name and record flashed up. St Peter read the references and said: "Ah, that explains it. We've calculated your age on the basis of your billable hours records. According to us, you're not 37, you're 470."
Out of practice, The Lawyer
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