The first-class carriages on Eurostar trains are fast becoming travelling offices for the UK's top corporate and commercial lawyers. And on an average working day, the £220 seats are likely to hold several City lawyers.
This trend illustrates three facets of travel and the law. First, lawyers no longer have the luxury of enjoying the view, whether crossing the Channel or travelling through the countryside. They are expected to use and charge travelling time. Second, an increasing number of City firms are using the Chunnel to reach their offices in Paris and Brussels, abandoning scheduled aircraft. Third, senior members of a firm can now expect to go first class.
These changes have led to a 25 per cent swing from aircraft to Eurostar on journeys from London to Paris and Brussels, and to the growth of the chauffeured car for domestic travel.
For City law firms, the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo is very convenient by underground or cab, and most lawyers' offices at the destinations are in the city centres.
Simon Stubbings, managing partner of City solicitor Theodore Goddard, is a convert to Eurostar and averages one trip a month. “I always travel this way now, generally first class. I live in central London so it's much more convenient, not just to get to Waterloo but to work on the train. To do this on a flight is difficult because of all the disruption.''
The price difference between first and second class, Stubbings says, is “minimal” for a such a difference in service.
Large City firms spend millions of pounds on travel and often employ travel specialists on a management fee to take the hassle out of organisation. For example, travel agency Hogg Robinson Business Travel International has accounts with City lawyers such as Clifford Chance, and offices in over 20 foreign cities.
Hogg Robinson passes its commissions from airlines and other travel operators back to the companies and offers a bespoke service covering hotels, chauffeured cars and visas.
Nick Hurrell, director of business development, negotiates volume discounts on air travel for expenditure of £100,000 and above with the same airline, but advises Paris and Brussels passengers to take Eurostar, which offers none. However, it does give at least three hours of working time to both destinations.
He says: “You can't work on a trip from the middle of London to the middle of Paris – it takes an hour to get to Heathrow, 40 minutes on check-in, about 35 minutes in the air and then you have to get into the city from the airport. And first-class on Eurostar is arguably an equivalent standard to first class in an aircraft.''
Although Eurostar currently offers no special business rates, it claims to offer a better quality journey. “Where we score is by offering three hours of work or relaxation time and a destination in the city centre, rather than an airport on the outskirts,” says Jim Rowe, Eurostar spokesman.
The service also scores well in terms of price. A first class return costs £220 and second class £155, compared with £205 for a scheduled British Airways flight from Heathrow to Paris, and £230 from Heathrow to Brussels, both of which cost £250 for Club class.
Christine Chandler, head of information services at Slaughter and May, which has 74 fee-earners abroad in offices including Paris and Brussels, has planned her first trip on Eurostar and says other solicitors in the practice have already used it. “It does give you the opportunity to work,” she says.
Generally, says Hurrell, the recession in business travel has ended. British Airways has relaunched both its first class and Club class services, although not everyone travels in them. “Companies are more cost-efficient these days and look to travel policies to save money, such as having to be a certain level in the firm to travel in a certain class,” she adds.
This boost in business travel is corroborated by national firm Pinsent Curtis, whose partners routinely travel first-class. Trips to the firm's London office from Birmingham are made by train on a half-hourly direct service. Northern journeys are less convenient and drivers chauffeur solicitors to enable them to work en route.
Clare Turnbull, Pinsent Curtis PR manager, says the firm's European trips are usually made by air from Birmingham. She adds that the service is so relaxed it feels like “leaving from your living room”.
Chargeable time is an important factor for Bristol-based firm Wansbrough Willey Hargrave, recently expanded to seven offices in the Bristol-London-Leeds triangle. The firm now increasingly uses chauffeured cars. If a meeting involves several partners, a Renault Espace is hired with a driver for as little as £200 per day. On a trip between Bristol and Leeds, this will give the lawyers at least six hours working time. “You can do the trip in just over three hours in a car and it is more cost-effective,” said Chris Charles, Wansbroughs' chief executive. All the firm's offices have pool cars, but the loss of chargeable time means it is less likely lawyers will drive themselves.
As Charles points out: “It's not the cost of the travel, it's the cost of the time.”