Snapshot of a profession in turmoil

Unrelenting bad press and increased competition have pushed marketing and management issues to the forefront of the 1990s agenda in law firms throughout the country.

“Legal services are an intangible service and in a commercial world they need to be presented alongside a clear marketing package,” said David Temporal, of management consultancy firm Hodgart Temporal. “Solicitors are being trained to use marketing skills as an integral part of their service. Developing their social skills, for example, is an important part of their work.”

Temporal was surprised, therefore, that a third of readers who completed the survey claimed they were not actively involved in marketing or developing their firm and one in 12 were actively discouraged from participating in either activity.

However, the perceptions of The Lawyer readers over the way law firms are run are not wholly conducive to the adoption of a 'feel good' marketing strategy – 45 per cent see their organisation as badly managed and 53 per cent perceive their management as autocratic, a figure that increases to 59 per cent for those in law firms.

One assistant solicitor from a leading City firm said: “There is no forum for the discussion of decisions and there is no way you can put a viewpoint across without seeming pushy.

“They could at the very least establish some kind of suggestion box or give more room for comment in the in-house newsletter.

“Partners are missing a lot of management talent by ignoring the presence of their assistants in decision making.”

Alan Pannett, director of legal training company BPP Professional Development and author of Managing the Law Firm, commented: “It comes as no surprise that management is perceived as autocratic – some firms are a cross between the Borgias and an Oxbridge college in management style.

“There is a terrific demand for strategic marketing and management training as partners seek to enlighten themselves in a bid to survive the new competitive climate.”

A similar level of dissatisfaction is expressed with the Law Society's management of the profession. Only 18 per cent of respondents claim to be involved in the Law Society, possibly because over half (55 per cent) think it does a bad job.

One head of legal services at a borough council said: “Martin Mears disregards a large section of the legal profession. Because I have two children and not the time to get involved in my local group, I feel totally disenfranchised. There needs to be more regular and wider consultation along the lines of Hansard.”

But Robert Sayer, vice-president of the society fought back at such criticism.

He said: “The inaccessibility of the Law Society is the reason why Martin Mears and myself stood for election last year. We want to drag the whole thing into the democratic arena by getting posts which are elected by members.

“Solicitors need a more approachable and user-friendly body which doesn't stand behind their back and wait for them to mess up.”

Mears said he was cynical of survey results generally and refused to comment.

Reflecting a distrust of the Law Society's current regulation of solicitors, two thirds of respondents said their profession needed to be externally regulated and scrutinised.

A City associate solicitor said: “The public never trusts people who regulate their own profession and because of the poor public image that solicitors have, they should be independently assessed.”

A spokesperson for the Law Society-controlled Solicitors Complaints Bureau said: “Self-regulation is the hallmark of a profession and what differentiates it from other trades. Through the SCB the solicitors profession has the highest standard of fair and impartial regulation which is to be prized and will continue.”

Advocates of multi-disciplinary practices can be reassured by the fact that 77 per cent of our respondents thought the Law Society should endorse the bringing together of services under one roof.

Paul Downing who will be leaving as London managing partner of Pinsent Curtis to join accountancy firm Price Waterhouse said: “There is no doubt that clients like the comfort of two advisers under one roof and the results of this survey proves that solicitors want it too.”

“I was a pen pusher”

Andy (not his real name) is a 30-year-old ex-solicitor. After training with a big City firm and two years in private practice, he left the profession to become a journalist. He has been writing, mainly on legal issues, since 1993.

“It was a gravy train offering security, wealth and challenge and, as a student I was keen. I wanted something 'professional' and focused.

If I am honest, I didn't have the energy or inspiration to explore other ideas for a career and felt safe in the knowledge that all I would have to do was pass exams to guarantee success.

That said, the law could have been the right choice if I hadn't opted for the City

but rather a smaller firm with a more personal touch.

It was when articles ended that the thought process finally set in: all around me peers were pioneering their way with great enjoyment, while I was regretting I had never applied my mind to where my talents really lay.

I wasn't protecting minorities from persecution or part of a system of justice. I was a paper pusher in the City and when I wasn't pushing paper I was expected to advise on areas about which I knew nothing. This meant incredible stress, little time to look around for a change and a real sense that the gravy train was more in control of the direction of my life than I was. So I jumped off.

Becoming a journalist seemed a natural step to take. It was something I had always enjoyed. The money is less than perfect (and considerably less than it would have been if I had stayed in practice) but my new career means more to me than being shackled to a time sheet ever did. Worrying at weekends over a subject that I have no commitment to is a thing of the past. My life feels as though it is my own again.”

“More commercialisation”

SUE STAPELY is a solicitor and head of press and public affairs at the Law Society. She has had a variety of careers but always maintained a practising certificate. She leaves the Law Society next month to become a communications consultant.

“I have had four careers. Before qualifying as a solicitor I worked for the BBC on, among other programmes, Dr Who. I have also been involved in politics and raised a family. I practised as a family law specialist for eight years before becoming involved in public relations.

My career changes have always been a result of my relish for a challenge.

Having made the career change myself, and speaking to a variety of solicitors on a daily basis in my current role, I am not surprised at the level of dissatisfaction shown in The Lawyer's survey.

I am very conscious that practice has moved away from being an intellectual discipline towards a commercial operation with the commercial pressures.~

Question masters

The survey undertaken by The Lawyer was devised with the assistance of the young solicitors' sub-committee of the City of London Solicitors' Company.

The company has a dual function as the City of London Law Society and 79th Worshipful Company.

The young solicitors' sub-committee deals primarily with the social and professional interests of assistant solicitors who work in the City.

Stories abound of seemingly infinite working hours, negligible support by superiors and general dissatisfaction with the professional environment, predominantly in the City but also profession-wide.

As a result, the sub-committee formed a working party of four assistant solicitors working at different City firms and devised a detailed questionnaire, most of which was incorporated in The Lawyer survey.

The results provide a unique insight into the lot of assistant solicitors throughout the country. The company intends to use the information gained as a basis for further discussion and an eventual report into the quality of life of City solicitors.

For a copy of The Lawyer survey call Carl Harris on 0171 287 9800, ext 3124. John Abramson is immediate past chair of the Young Solicitors' Sub-Committee of the City of London Solicitors' Company and an assistant solicitor at London firm Warner Cranston.

“I am now in control”

Chris Millerchip is a founding partner of Plc Publications, a niche legal publisher. He set up the business with Robert Dow in 1990 after four years with City firm Slaughter and May.

“My career move was based on a positive wish to change my lifestyle. Quality of life became increasingly important as my career progressed. Another factor was wanting to do something on my own account.

As a junior fee earner in a large commercial practice, I found I had little control of the work I was doing or input in decision-making. I was very much at the beck and call of more senior colleagues as well as clients. Ultimately your work is very reactive. I wanted to be involved in a more proactive business.

Although law can be intellectually demanding and analytical, it is not necessarily creative – it was a challenge to set up a new business. I also changed careers at a time when I was able to adjust to the drop in salary. Had I stayed in practice I would probably be tied to the financial security.

Changing career is a decision I have never regretted; I feel entirely justified. I am now in joint control and I enjoy it immensely.”

After eight years as a commercial lawyer, Catherine Berney retrained as an organisational psychologist. She now manages a development consultancy.

“My switch from being a commercial lawyer in the City to an organisational psychologist seems unusual. But like any professional development it was a logical and pragmatic move.

I assessed my strengths and looked at opportunities in the market, spotted a gap, and developed a long-term strategy to get there.

As a commercial lawyer I had developed considerable skill in dealing with clients, delivering quality advice and building and maintaining business relationships.

But I also began to notice what I considered weakness in the management of professional legal practice. I felt that this was particularly apparent in terms of motivation and performance.

I could never have predicted where I have ended up. But, like most career changes, the process has been ongoing; it is rarely a matter of giving up one discipline for another but of combining learning and skills so the whole is a richer sum of the parts.”