29 July 2002
Parlett Kent senior partner Caroline Jenkins says: "Our expectation is to continue to expand, but that's tempered by whatever changes may be brought in by the Government with the white paper [on the handling of clinical negligence claims]."
For this London and Exeter-based firm, with 75 per cent of its turnover derived from clinical negligence litigation, the outcome of the paper is crucial. There is the potential for a no-fault compensation scheme for certain cases and the withdrawal of public funding for clinical negligence cases is possible. Until these issues are finalised, plans for another London office are on hold. Over the last two years, the firm has sensibly been promoting other areas such as personal injury (PI), abuse and psychiatric negligence. This will continue.
When Jenkins joined the firm in the early 1980s, it concentrated on non-contentious and defendant PI work. She built the claimant PI and clinical negligence teams. As senior partner for eight years, she insists that having an entirely female partnership has not been a deliberate strategy, more a consequence of promoting a flexible working lifestyle. There are six partners (two of which are equity, the rest salaried), two assistant solicitors, one trainee, two paralegals and a nurse. There are even a couple of men.
Both equity partners work part time. "Working part time can be a double-edged sword," says Jenkins. "You tend to do more in four days. It was set up for people who are bright and interested, but get fed up in large corporate organisations and just leave. Flexibility was found to be very important when recruiting, and that's what we can offer."
It is not just working mothers that the firm benefits, but also those with itchy feet, such as Julie Say, who had six months off to travel. Jenkins is also proud of the combined expertise of the firm - around 40 years in their specialist fields - regardless of their gender.
The greatest challenge that the firm has faced in recent years is the combination of the Woolf reforms and the abolition of legal aid. Although Jenkins backs the changes and says that the firm has embraced them, she admits that it has resulted in serious issues with cashflow and the need for a higher level of management from the equity partners.
One of the current objectives is to ensure the future of the partnership with young blood. Jenkins likes to train staff hard and promote fast, creating opportunities where she can; the idea being that junior staff can easily see a realistic and achievable career path without looking further afield. Manori Wellington and Mary Hassell are the most recent partners to have been made up, but the firm did lose Maggie Lieper at the end of last year to Daniel & Harris. She did non-contentious work and will not be replaced.
Over the last year, Parlett Kent has won damages in excess of £17m for its clients. Notable cases include: a £3.5m-£5m award for a child with cerebral palsy on a bottom-up structured settlement basis (with which the claimant is awarded an annual income rather than a lump sum damages payment); a £3.5m cerebral palsy award; and £6.5m for a spinal injury case.
"There are complexities all the way through most of these cases," says Jenkins. "If you're quantifying the care that they're going to need in the future, it's predicated on how long they're going to live for. It can be an extremely thorny and difficult issue. For lawyers in almost in any field, I suspect there are different degrees of misery. People don't come to see lawyers for light relief."