Comment and Analysis:Column. The legal profession must not be allowed to lose its way

Consumer campaigner Marlene Winfield says law schools could boost public confidence by exposing students to the real world. Marlene Winfield is senior policy officer at the National Consumer Council. I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak with a consumer voice to readers of The Lawyer.

I begin with a fundamental question: is the law still a profession or are professional obligations taking a back seat to income generation?

I ask partly because increasingly I meet young lawyers who complain of the tyranny of billable hours.

I often, too, meet older lawyers who lament that the law has changed for the worse.

Solicitors and barristers faced with the ethical challenge of conditional fees say publicly they are not sure they can be trusted to put the clients' interests first.

Growing demoralisation among the ranks is mirrored by a loss of public esteem. Too often I meet clients who have lost faith in justice because of their lawyers' actions.

When solicitors or barristers are called “fat cats”, few client voices are raised in their defence. The question therefore is what needs to change?

A starting point must be legal education. From the beginning, it should stress professional obligations to clients and society as a whole. Every law school – not just the progressive ones – should run legal clinics where, under strict supervision, students are exposed to real people and their problems.

It would encourage a client focus from the beginning and it might even tempt more young lawyers into the Cinderella area of social welfare law.

I sit on the management committee of a citizens' advice bureau, recently taken over by several of the largest City firms. Seeing the enthusiasm and commitment of the solicitors operating the scheme makes me wonder why City firms do not have social welfare law departments. the two cultures have a great deal to teach each other.

There are sound business reasons for striking a proper balance between being a business and a profession. Consumers are becoming more sophisticated and increasingly they seek out practitioners who combine the best features of both – high professional standards, good client care, efficiency and accountability.

The law is in danger of losing its attraction for the young and idealistic. Its public standing and professional privileges are also at risk. There is value in being business-like, but if the balance in legal practice swings too far from its professional ethos, we will all be poorer. Better ways need to be found to marry the goals of doing good and doing well.