Rolling back the years
10 December 2009 | By Husnara Begum
Times have certainly changed in the legal profession since the advent of IT and globalisation.
The legal market saw one of its biggest changes earlier this year. Clifford Chance, once the UK’s largest law firm, was knocked into third place in the revenue table by magic circle rivals Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which took the number one and two spots respectively.
But it is more than just the size, shape and reach of the UK’s leading commercial law firms that have changed. Over the past three decades the way the legal sector operates has seen phenomenal progress thanks to several factors, including globalisation and advances in technology, such as the internet and, of course, every lawyer’s best friend, the BlackBerry.
Indeed, as partners Graham White at Slaughter and May, Tim Jones at Freshfields and Alexander Brown at Simmons & Simmons explain (see boxes), technology has changed the way lawyers do business beyond recognition. With so much reliance on the internet and email it is surprising that trainees at some firms, including Linklaters, had to share computers until as recently as the mid-1990s.
What is more, with the enactment of the Legal Services Act, the structure of law firms may change forever as practices move away from the traditional partnership model in favour of investment from third parties.
Another area that is developing rapidly is outsourcing, with even the ultra-conservative Slaughters dipping its toe. As Lawyer 2B reported in October, Slaughters is in talks with a legal process outsourcing (LPO) agency about the prospect of outsourcing low-level legal work, including document review and due diligence.
It is understood that the unexpected move was triggered by a request from a single client and is at an early stage.
As Osborne Clarke managing partner Simon Beswick puts it, Slaughters’ decision to outsource legal work is a “watershed moment” for the UK legal industry.
“It confirms our belief that the legal market is changing rapidly and demonstrates to clients that market-leading firms are listening to their needs and that they’re willing to innovate,” explains Beswick.
Indeed, when contacted by Lawyer 2B’s sister title The Lawyer, DLA Piper, Freshfields and Linklaters all confirmed that they were weighing up outsourcing options, although DLA Piper stressed it was considering only non-legal schemes. Others, including Simmons, have already embraced LPO. Under a year-long agreement with outsourcing specialist Integreon, Simmons will employ five lawyers in Mumbai, who will work for the City firm on a full-time basis handling document review, due diligence and research.
So will the rise of LPO be detrimental to the career development of trainees and paralegals? Writing in The Lawyer (26 October), Beswick denied that this will be the case. “The role that junior lawyers play in due diligence, for example, will of course change. But change can bring benefits. Instead of carrying out the initial document review, in the future [trainees] are more likely to develop by reviewing the initial findings and determining what requires further investigation,” wrote Beswick.
During the 1980s and 1990s it was technology that made the biggest difference to the way lawyers worked. The noughties, meanwhile, are most likely to be remembered for outsourcing. But the shape and form that the legal market is likely to take by the time most of you embark on your training contracts or pupillages is anyone’s guess.
“A card index system was used to record details of overseas law firms and most emphasis was placed on how good the lawyer was as a lunch companion”
The contrasts between life as an articled clerk in the pre-Big Bang late 1970s and life as a trainee now were evident from my first day in the City. I was one of an intake of 18 articled clerks - three of whom are still at Slaughter and May - and our induction of one and a half hours consisted of a brisk welcome and reminder of the importance of accurately recording our time and advice (some things have not changed) followed by a welcome from an articled clerk who had already been at the firm for a year. In my case this was from Chris Saul, now our senior partner.
Once that was finished we were taken for lunch in a local pub, including a couple of pints, which then seemed entirely normal lunchtime behaviour. At that point no firms had staff restaurants so lunch was a choice between one of the many ‘greasy spoons’ that proliferated across the City and a trip to the pub for a pint and a Scotch egg. Boozy lunchtimes were far more socially acceptable than they are now.
Articled clerks spent the full 12 months of their training sitting with the same supervisor in a commercial group and would see a very wide range of work by modern standards, reflecting the fact that there were fewer specialist groups. Although there were pensions, tax and property departments (then endearingly called ‘conveyancing’), there were no separate employment, environment, financial regulation or intellectual property groups, and commercial lawyers were expected to deal with stamp duty and employment issues themselves. There was no distinction between corporate and financing groups, so during the course of the 12 months you would expect to handle rights issues, public takeovers, private acquisitions, syndicated loans, shareholder disputes, eurobond issues and debenture trust issues.
There were no standard documents to speak of and the knowhow system consisted of a card index arrangement with details of jobs handled by other lawyers in the firm. Far more time was spent visiting lawyers around the firm to get bibles of deals they had done than would be necessary now. Nor was there any formal training for articled clerks.
A card index system was also used to record details of overseas law firms and most emphasis was placed on how good the lawyer was as a lunch companion.
There was no proofreading department, word-processing, email or even fax in the 1970s. Maybe because documents had to be sent in full by telex from time to time, documents tended to be materially shorter. They were produced by specialist copy-typing secretaries, who bashed away furiously at mechanical typewriters in small and invariably smoke-filled rooms. That taught the importance of getting the drafting right the first time and careful checking.
My whole firm was less than half the size it is now - at that stage a 50-partner firm was referred to in awe as “the stampeding herd” and there were serious debates about whether partnerships could get any larger without becoming unmanageable.
“In years gone by there was a huge emphasis on client face time and numerous well-populated meetings, whereas now the majority of our business is conducted via emails and conference calls”
Life as a Freshfields articled clerk (as we were then known) in the early 1980s was a completely different experience to that of our current trainees. Forget the wealth of information prospective trainees are armed with now – vacation schemes, open days or even just what you can find on a graduate recruitment website - we came in totally blind. It was the same when deciding on which firm to train with. The only real sources of information were college tutors and, if you were lucky, contacts in the legal field.
When I joined Freshfields in 1981 I was part of a cohort of 12, much more intimate than our current intakes of around 45. My first seat was in company, which today is broken up into the corporate, finance, antitrust, competition and trade, and intellectual property departments. The training contract was not as structured as it is today. It was a case of learning on the job and starting at the very bottom of the food chain. Countless hours were spent researching in the library, where it was often difficult to find a spare desk. A typical task was the painstaking job of blacklining documents by hand. Unlike today, the original draft would travel round the office to be reviewed by multiple lawyers before being returned a little dog-eared and covered in multicoloured ink for group review.
It was certainly a steep learning curve as a fresh trainee, just as it is today. During my first week I was asked to deliver a document “by hand” to a nearby client. I failed to grasp the importance of this and ended up taking a minor detour with some colleagues to a local pub. When I arrived with the document, understandably slightly delayed, I entered the boardroom and was met with the glares of 30 expectant people waiting to have the document signed. That was certainly a lesson learnt.
The most dramatic changes since my time as a trainee are the way we now conduct business and our support functions. While now we rely heavily on our business services and legal support functions, as a trainee all we had were our secretaries and the odd professional support lawyer. In years gone by there was a huge emphasis on client face time and numerous well-populated meetings, whereas now the majority of our business is conducted via emails and conference calls. Having said that, the importance of strong client relationships is no less significant today. If anything it has become even more crucial to our practice, but more of the relationship management takes place remotely. There is so much more flexibility today as a result of IT developments that allow staff at all levels to maintain a good work-life balance.
There are certain aspects I do miss from my time as a trainee, for example the office tea trolley. Although, come to think of it, it was only the partners and their favourites who ever got the chocolate biscuits.
The 1990s: Alexander Brown, partner, Simmons & Simmons
It was 1 September 1997, the Labour Government had just come to power, I was 22 and it was the first day of my training contract at Simmons & Simmons. I was part of an intake of 35 other trainees and our first day was the first time I had met the vast majority of them. Most large law firms now have their trainees attend the same Legal Practice Course provider, which I think is better in terms of giving you a softer landing in the new job.
The main difference in legal practice and training now compared with the 1990s is the impact of electronic communication and the speed of response and delivery of service that it entails. In the 1990s most communication was still conducted by either letter or fax. I certainly remember that, while doing a summer placement, email was only used by a few fee-earners using fairly antiquated email systems. Internet access, when I was a trainee, was reserved for people who could make a business case for having it. That soon changed and email became, as it is now of course, the primary tool for internal and external communication.
There is no doubt that electronic communication through email and BlackBerry has changed greatly how we work as lawyers. Compared with when I was a trainee there is certainly greater pressure to respond quickly to communications and an ‘always on’ approach to working. Things such as BlackBerries, mobile broadband and remote access to systems also mean that lawyers can work more flexibly than when I was a trainee.
Technology is, of course, evolving continually and the use of instant messaging, video-calling, online deal rooms and document collaboration/sharing through systems such as WebEx will take us even further away from the largely paper-based communication and mode of working that was the norm when I was a trainee.
The business of law has also changed a great deal since the 1990s. Firms are more sophisticated commercial enterprises than they were then and the practice of law has also changed.
Partly through client demands and partly through the need to innovate to gain competitive advantage, most large law firms are looking to deliver their services in different ways. For example, the selling of our knowledge as a commodity product would at one point have been unthinkable, but now many firms, including Simmons, offer knowhow and knowledge either on a subscription basis or for free. Another good example is the use of lower-cost jurisdictions to provide cheaper solutions to clients. Again, these sorts of structure were not conceived of in the 1990s.
The profession has come a long way and changed a great deal in the past 10-15 years.