Payback time for global firms

The Lawyer Awards last week (24 June) belonged to Freshfields in a big way. It won Law Firm of the Year for its comeback, and for setting the pace within the magic circle – some achievement given its couple of painful years of restructuring. It also won Competition Team of the Year and had more than a hand in the employment team award, which went to Lewis Silkin partly for its work defending Freshfields on the Bloxham case.

Freshfields is not the only firm with a handy redemption narrative – look no further than silver medallist Stephenson Harwood, which really did teeter on the brink five years ago. Nowadays it’s all sunlit uplands, astounding financials and a targeted international strategy. Ditto Bird & Bird, whose road to winning the international law firm prize has been painstaking.

The ability of UK firms to adapt themselves to a global economy has been an object lesson. In exporting their services, City firms have benefited from a legal system free from corruption, so it would be nice to see influential commercial law firms give more public support for the rule of law.

One of the most popular trophies at the awards was the special award for Hina Jalani for her landmark work on human rights and the rule of law in Pakistan. Jalani herself is an astonishing woman who runs personal risks in her work. Last year, following the legal turmoil in Pakistan, a warrant was even issued for her arrest. She wasn’t able to be present last week – the award was picked up by Tony Fisher of the Law Society’s human rights committee and Jalani’s niece Sulema Jahangir, an associate at Freshfields (yes, Freshfields again). But spend just a few minutes in Jalani’s company and you know you’re with a formidable individual.

After the ceremony we were inundated with personal emails from awards guests expressing support for her work. And yet in public discourse there is a rhetorical vacuum.

Globalisation has brought riches to UK lawyers – but also responsibilities. Commercial firms could be amazingly effective champions of the rule of law: time to give something back.