The Leader column

It’s not been the best week for the public image of lawyers. First off was the news that Equitable Life is to review the role of its advisers in the House of Lords battle which led to a £1.5bn payout over disputed benefits. Denton Wilde Sapte has found itself in that particular firing line.

Then, right at the end of the week came the report in the Maxwell affair which has criticised Clifford Chance and Linklaters & Alliance among others for their role in the ill-advised flotation of the Mirror Group Newspapers.

Clifford Chance told The Lawyer that in its eyes there was very little criticism of its role in the report. But it failed to spot that the prospectus for the Mirror Group Newspapers flotation was full of what, as the report politely puts it, wholly misleading information.

Now I might be wrong, but I sense that those law firms castigated this week are slightly sore. After all, they were not to know that Robert Maxwell was possibly the biggest crook ever to enter a newspaper office.

But you can’t have it both ways. Increasingly lawyers are revelling in the fact that they are being treated as equals when it comes to making business decisions, rather than as the spoilsports who stop the real decision-makers doing what they want, or picking up the pieces when the proverbial hits the fan.

If you want to be at the frontline then you have to be prepared to take bullets. And you have to be aware that after it all goes wrong you will sound a little pathetic if you give the excuse that you were not to know as you weren’t in the habit of reading company minutes to interpret what your client was talking about in the prospectus. Unfortunately, Clifford Chance seems to have done just that. In its defence, it does say that firms just did not do that at the time. So that’s all right then.

It is rather ironic that both stories have hit the headlines in the very week before the limited liability partnership enters the market. This structure will of course give better protection to individual partners in the event of being sued. It will be interesting to see how many firms sign up over the course of the next few months.