Contrary to the sentiments expressed by John Hendy QC, I think we still have a lot to learn from our American counterparts. His plea that we should find UK solutions to UK problems carries the same hollow ring as the plea of the recalcitrant litigant for a settlement in the face of defeat.
The UK problems that he speaks of are long standing yet few UK solutions have been proffered to date. The reality is that those who were doing well by the system, naturally, saw little reason to change it. The rest (and among them include clients) simply had to lump it.
I had the good fortune to visit the US, in 1995, as part of their International Visitor Programme and took the opportunity to compare notes with members of their legal community. I was very much impressed by the market/client- driven focus of US law firms as against the lawyer driven focus which characterises our system.
The difference is clear from the moment you enter their reception area: they are designed for maximum client comfort. Contrast the creaky and austere setting of barristers' chambers which are intended, solely, to make our learned friends appear that much more learned.
Mr Hendy complains that the US-type contingency fees compromise a barrister's independence by giving him a financial interest in the settlement.
This betrays the lack of client focus of which I speak. For, surely, a measure which seeks to align an advocate's interest with those of his client must be welcomed if we are really in the business of serving clients.
The problem with the existing system is that it is never too difficult to find a barrister who is ready to give an opinion that the client has an arguable case given that he, the barrister, will receive his fees whatever the outcome. Conditional fees, a modified American import, will at least oblige the would-be advocate to demonstrate his faith in his own opinions since his reward will now depend on it. It is not the barrister's independence that this new regime is intended to compromise but his indifference.
Contrast also, if you will, our two-lawyers-when-one-will-do system with the integrated service that US clients can expect from their lawyers.
The double-decker package of solicitor and barrister is a frill to the service that many UK clients could do without and most international clients find hard to comprehend.
The level of penetration that US law firms have achieved in the UK market should be a reminder to all concerned that traditions will count for little in the competitive times that lie ahead.