When client service is reduced to a sideshow

IN TONY Williams' first interview since The Lawyer revealed he is joining accountancy giant Arthur Andersen to run its troubled legal division, he says that he hopes that his appointment will help "draw a line" under the negative publicity surrounding the disastrous Wilde Sapte merger.

It is perhaps a sign of the new legal times that a single appointment can go so far in helping to re-establish an organisation's credibility.

But Williams' appointment does not merely make merger negotiations with top-flight law firms credible again, it adds power to Arthur Andersen's cause.

Before Williams joined, the top flight law firms would not have been seen dead in the same boardroom as Arthur Andersen.

And though Williams remains coy about the possibility of merger, it has to form a core part of his strategy to rebuild and reposition Andersen Legal.

In the interview, Williams also talks about the greater demands of in-house lawyers on private practice.

The announcement this week that Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance would both be setting up virtual dealing services to clients (see page 2) is the first major new service to come out of the magic circle in a long time.

It is refreshing that after the major mergers of last year two firms the size and importance of A&O and Clifford Chance have begun to concentrate on improving their service to clients rather than ceaselessly pushing for world domination.

But these product developments may be seen as an amusing sideshow while firms continue to consolidate, not least Williams' Andersen Legal.

Unfortunately for clients, the noise generated about mergers and global reach is likely to continue to drown out the pleadings of in-house lawyers who want better, cheaper, more efficient and more flexible services.