There is still a place for traditional professional values
22 October 2001
Money, money, money, it's a rich man's world. Swedes are back in fashion, it seems, with Mr Erikkson being the toast up and down the land. But money just never seems to go out of fashion, or out of the headlines, when it comes to the legal profession.
The recent survey by The Lawyer (13 August) suggests that further "clear blue water" has developed between the highest City salaries and those being paid in the regions.
Fear not, this is not a gripe about the existence of pay differentials - they have always existed; although my experience is that many lawyers make career choices on the basis of more rounded judgements than just pay.
Am I alone in my sense of unease that the profession does itself no favours with its apparent fixation for publicising some of the highest levels of pay in the land? No wonder the majority of clients and the general public think that we are some of the fattest cats around.
But are we? And why are we so ineffective at countering this claim?
I believe that in the majority of cases the levels of pay can be justified. Few outside the profession, let alone within it, would consider working the sorts of hours expected at those firms making the money headlines. Then there is the cost of buying a home close to the City, and why shouldn't pay be used to beat off the competition for talented young lawyers?
But why are there so few articles which develop these arguments beyond the headlines? As most lawyers don't earn the highest levels of pay available in a few of the City firms, surely a more balanced perspective of the issues relevant to us all could be given by the legal press? We all want to be rewarded fairly for our efforts from a financial viewpoint, but the weight of the pay packet is not the only measure of success, or indeed the only interesting thing about being a lawyer.
Most lawyers I know are unbelievably conscientious and do not need kicking to work long and challenging days. They are motivated first and foremost by a desire to provide the highest levels of client service. Yet there seems to be little collective effort to present a picture of a profession to which these values still matter.
A fair amount of my time is spent recruiting lawyers, often out of City firms, to a smaller, regional environment. Many successful regional firms enjoy low churn rates, reasonable billing targets, a 'work to live' culture and the satisfaction of gaining increasing volumes of work at the expense of City firms. Of course, the money is a bit less, but what is the point of having it if there is no time to enjoy it? Unfortunately, the balanced work/life argument involves softer issues that are difficult to convey succinctly, so maybe they get less of an airing, which is understandable, but a shame nonetheless.
It is also a shame that the Law Society has become something of an irrelevant sideshow in recent years. It could and should be a force for promoting the good things about our profession, but largely we are left as individual firms to work out our own messages and to get those across as best we can.
Through strong and open client relationships, based on high levels of technical expertise and service, we can create opportunities to demonstrate to clients that lawyers join the profession for what they can put into it, not just what they can get out. There is still a place for traditional professional values, which is something that even the very largest businesses still tell us they want at the core of their relationship with their lawyers. Many clients appreciate that there is a relatively high price to pay for the sort of service levels now being provided by the better firms across the country.
But it also wouldn't do any harm for a more balanced picture to be presented through the legal press. The legal profession has never been just about money. Let us hope it stays that way.