18 October 1999
Earlier last week a merger took place between two high-profile heavyweights. The fact that it was on TV and featured two 40-tonne reptiles must, of course, rule out the Denton Wilde Sapte nuptials, but it was memorable all the same.
In fact, the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs is proving fascinating viewing. So far we've had the herbivores (big, dumb, slow-moving) and the carnivores (big, dumb, fast-moving). We learned that the largest creatures reached the size they did because they had to eat, only to find that they were then compelled to eat to serve their size. Stop me if all this sounds too familiar.
Analogies aside, an insightful image this week was that of a small winged thing which set up camp not with the dinosaurs, but on them. Here was a creature that lived, ate, slept and bred on the backs of the big boys. It was a telling moment. Even 165 million years ago it seems the world had those.
These days, the scientific term for this is symbiosis - a mutually advantageous association between two organisms. The legal term is rather simpler: it's "working with recruitment agencies". The scientists have a point: there should be an obvious mutual benefit in the association of affirmed people-businesses like law firms with a sector whose business is people. And to be fair, most firms have a small group of agencies with which they do satisfactory business again and again.
The unpalatable fact remains, however, that the sector in question is still thought by many to be based on intangible skills, a flimsy code of conduct and the haziest grasp of loyalty this side of the swamp. Yet recruitment is a delicate business and prospective partners are understandably shy about the direct approach and they want to talk to go-betweens. So good relationships with agencies are a must-have.
Why, then, have agencies allowed a perception to develop that, having established a client relationship, they think that it's okay to poach that client's assets? So they have other clients, but lawyers wrestle with this problem all the time - it's called conflict of interest.
No such qualms, it is said, in the realm of recruitment agencies. No surprise, either, that in its May 1999 consultation paper "Regulation of the Private Recruitment Industry", the DTI fires a few salvos their way. In a damning indictment it says: "Certain bureaux seem only to have a hazy understanding of their duties in law, the legislation governing their business, or even basic standards of commercial probity."
As with their closest living relatives - estate agents - it appears as if the only service some of this sector understand is of the "self" variety. Not for them the stringencies of regulation (yet). Never mind that - like most of you, I am regularly phoned by some "aficionado" wielding Chambers Directory circa 1984. And yet what recourse is there? For the disgruntled client nothing, other than the tiresome threat of "taking my business elsewhere" - possibly for more of the same.
In the long run, do we need them? Certainly. Provided they learn the lessons of service, client loyalty and confidentiality. Although, I can't help thinking that if we had the Law Society that we need, as distinct from the fossil we deserve, it would be energetically negotiating a code of practice in this area that would not just benefit agencies, law firms and lawyers, but send the shysters out there into extinction.