“Too often lawyers operate as a herd, running in a state of panic from one fashionable priority to another,” is how one editorial started in January 1991, but this was not a blanket criticism – a number of moves were praised. For example, in a move looking forward to the European market opening in 1992, the Bar Council relaxed its rules to ease the entry of lawyers from other EC jurisdictions. But not all the news in 1991 was positive.
In the wider commercial world, the recession was making a mark, with insolvency practitioners predicting that corporate failures would reach the 20,000 mark – good news for insolvency practitioners but not for the corporations. The slowdown was also confirmed in the report that City firms' involvement in takeover work had fallen more than 80 per cent during 1990.
The Lloyd's Names were heading for major litigation, and the Blue Arrow/County Nat West case was set to be possibly the longest-running and most expensive criminal hearing since the Nuremberg trials.
The recession struck, with reports of withdrawals and deferments of offers of traineeships. In The Lawyer Top 100, only 38 per cent expected to have vacancies for newly-qualified assistants from other firms.
For the first time in recent memory there were significantly more newly-qualifieds looking for jobs than jobs for them. And further up the scale, a gloomy Skipton Building Society survey said solicitors' homes made up 6 per cent of repossessions.
Later in the year, there were also reports of redundancies in firms across the board, with the recession slowing down merger activity among firms. The recession was blamed for the demerger of Walker Martineau and Stringer Saul six months after the merger.
In the US, lawyer Nancy O'Mara Ezold won her case against Philadelphia firm Wolf Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen for sex discrimination, for not making her a partner.
Totally unconnected but useful if firms were going to be hit by similar actions, the Law Society endorsed the concept of legal expenses insurance, but warned that many existing policies had serious defects.
New York firms Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn and Shea & Gould terminated their London operations, but it was not all bad news – as part of the continuing dalliances across the Atlantic, Theodore Goddard linked up with US firm Dewey Ballantine. Lawyers were also likely to get construction work from the rebuilding of Kuwait after riding out the Gulf War, and 962 firms were reported as being involved in the Benzodiazepine case…
The Bar Council got its first black member, Bernard Wiltshire, the Association of Women Barristers was set up, and John Wall became the first blind solicitor to be appointed as a deputy Chancery Master.
Following the release of the Birmingham Six, the Royal Commission of Criminal Justice was set up, headed by Lord Runciman. Meanwhile the civil justice review reforms came into effect, redistributing business between the High Courts and the County Courts. And with competition perceived from in-house conveyancing in financial institutions, 40 firms linked together to form a conveyancing panel for building societies and banks.
Lord Mackay hit the headlines on legal aid again with his review for eligibility for legal aid in civil cases: “The problem of access to justice does not begin with legal aid. It begins with the way in which lawyers choose to operate and how they charge for their services.” Legal Action Group director Roger Smith replied: “It is a typical civil servant notion that cases are open and shut. Those that are, are settled. Cases only go to court where both sides are hoping to win – where there is an arguable point.” The argument continues in 1997.
By the end of 1991, most of the legal profession were relieved to have survived the year. Hiccups included the Bar Council fighting rent reviews at the Inns of Court and The Lawyer's statistics revealing that one in five newly-qualified solicitors were not being retained, but generally, the view was that the market bottomed out by the end of 1991, and the legal profession was gearing itself up for Europe in 1992.