Speaking about expanding his social housing team, Ballard joked: “Anyone who’s under 50 and reads The Guardian gets brought on.”
The comment was apparently so offensive to this instructing solicitor in the West Midlands that he was thinking of withdrawing work from Shoosmiths, presumably because Ballard was caught in possession of a sense of humour. I suppose if you look hard enough you can take offence anywhere; this is just about understandable if you’re a passionate believer in a particular cause, but it takes a special sort of joylessness to unearth offence over this sort of remark.
For this client to claim, as he did, that it was a ’Gerald Ratner’ moment was at best wrongheaded and at worst wilfully absurd. The demise of Ratner’s high street chain was entirely linked to an after-dinner speech, when he was reported as saying the jewellery his company sold was “crap”. By contrast, Ballard’s quip wasn’t about the quality of his group’s advice (Shoosmiths’ social housing team is one of the most respected regional practices in the field). It was certainly an ironic remark about the popular stereotype of people working in social housing, but in no way did it denigrate professionals in that sector.
Still, our sensitive instructing solicitor was certainly hell-bent on causing trouble for Ballard. Within a day of his conversation with us the same person had called the Birmingham Post, which ran the story under the headline “Left-wing lawyers’ joke backfires on Shoosmiths man”. The client was clearly expending extraordinary energy on trying to create a row.
I think we need collectively to resist such onslaught of enforced dreariness or we’ll end up with officially sanctioned periods of fun for charitable purposes only, such as Red Nose Day. It also encourages people to proffer appallingly tedious on-message remarks at all times, as if the use of robotic euphemisms wasn’t widespread enough already.
I’ve heard of people getting hauled over the coals by clients over conflicts or fees or incompetence. But I’ve never heard of someone threatened with being kicked off a panel because of a well-developed sense of irony.