Union blues

If anyone deserves to survive the economic downturn with jobs and reputations intact it is trade union lawyers, says Keith Miles, as for much less money, they do much more good

If, during an idle moment (only kidding), you type the words 'history of trade unions' into the Google search engine on the internet, you will find a staggering 342 links. On the other hand, if you type in the words 'history of trade union lawyers', you will get precisely none.

This is certainly not because trade union lawyers do not deserve a place in history. In fact, I would argue that they deserve far more accolades than they are ever likely to receive, and have contributed a great deal more to society than many of their more lauded – and certainly better paid – legal counterparts. Indeed, trade union lawyers are often at the forefront of a great deal of litigation that is positively beneficial to society, and I am not just referring to the general extension of personal injury (PI) work such as PFI, but also measures in health and safety that have made a direct and important impact on the marketplace.

Indeed, as a specialist in PI and clinical negligence recruitment, there have been times when I have felt a positive, sanctimonious glow in dealing with useful lawyers who perform a positive function when compared with some of my colleagues who are attempting to revive the careers of two year-qualified lawyers in non-contentious taxidermy.

Over the past few turbulent years in the topsy-turvy world of PI, the trade union lawyers can be said to have had a reasonably decent ride. During the early days of the threat of Claims Direct and other referrers, the bulk of PI practices could be pigeonholed into two camps: those in which the partners were desperately trying to get their advertising on the side of buses and those where the partners were desperately trying to describe a bus to the senior partner. The trade union practices had a relatively secure position and could watch buses go by in the heart and budget-warming knowledge that they knew where their next fall at a bus stop was coming from.

So what has gone wrong? Why do we now read of redundancies in this sector, hear rumours of mergers (answers on a postcard to 'Latest Merger Rumour Competition') and doom and gloom?

First, there is that old, gold 'r' word – recession. (Incidentally, why do all the dreadful things that can happen in the workplace begin with 'r': rats, recession, redundancy, reorganisation…) Membership of trade unions has been on the decline for many years, although when I checked on the internet under 'membership of trade unions' I could only get statistics for Norway. Anyway, membership there is down, you will not be surprised to hear.

So there has been a necessary squeezing of resources and the sound of belts tightening when it comes to the legal support that can be given and, more pertinently, how much they are prepared to pay for it.

There has also been a necessary overreliance on a small number of clients. The warning signs have been very loud from other sectors, where the loss of one or two major clients overnight can have disastrous consequences if there is no contingency plan. In this area, both the defendant clinical negligence and defendant PI firms can testify to this. I well remember the National Health Service Litigation Authority's (NHSLA) 'night of the long knives', when the panel was culled and my role took on that of social worker just before Christmas. Entire firms had to very swiftly reinvent themselves as a result of this culling.

I cannot think of a more breathtaking time in a lawyer's career than the long wait at your desk for the man to come and take away your files. The fact that it was just before the Christmas break gave the whole episode a slightly Dickensian ring.

If rumour is anything to go by – and unfortunately it normally is – we are steeling ourselves for a goodly number of redundancies and a reshuffling within the trade union sector. One must hope that this whole process is handled slightly better than many such situations in the past and many situations across the whole business spectrum.

Practices in this area do need to face up to what is needed, both in terms of PR (and let us not forget that it is just as important to get the PR absolutely right for the staff as well as it is for the watching world) and also with regard to the necessary reorganisation and flows of the firm. Any negative press can be a very scary roller coaster ride for firms and it is sensible at all stages to be as up-front and honest as possible and to use outside expertise wherever necessary. A few years back, Thompsons went through a fairly radical reorganisation and there were many negative comments about the process. But if the firm needed to do this for sound reasoning, then so be it. Law firms are not inherently different to other law firms.

Ironically, some of the 'bigger boys', such as Osborne Clarke, are showing the way when it comes to handling any form of downturn in fortunes, by both making the necessary adjustments within the firm as well as facing up to this in both the press and with its own staff. It is being honest about the situation, not shirking the resultant publicity and, most importantly, the firm is doing what it possibly can for the redundant staff and the worried souls who remain.

I can honestly say that I have never met a trade union lawyer who I did not like, which is more than can be said of estate agents, postmen and bus drivers. Many, if not all, are very good and committed lawyers who have chosen a trickier career path compared with non-contentious taxidermy. They deserve to come through any 'recession' reasonably unscathed and the firms with their reputations reasonably intact. Fingers crossed.

Keith Miles is a PI and clinical negligence specialist at Graham Gill