The year of discontent

Things were starting to look up in 1996. UK law firms reportedly made more money this year than ever before thanks to a strong economy. But despite the fact that assistant solicitors' salaries increased by 5 to 10 per cent and top firms appointed more partners than usual, the profession was rife with discontent.

A survey carried out by The Lawyer revealed that lawyers were disillusioned and highly stressed, and that many regretted entering the profession.

Spirits were lifted in the summer, however, when New York firm Chadbourne & Park advertised the highest ever partner salary in the UK, a whopping £700,000. It was indicative of the overall high salaries offered by US practices, which successfully lured top UK lawyers away from local firms throughout the year.

Davis Polk & Wardwell and Skadden Arps shot into the Top 10 slot for M&A deals, and Dewey Ballantine split from Theodore Goddard to set up its own London office.

This was also the year that the big boys of accountancy put a threatening toe in the legal door. City firms were donning boxing gloves, aware they would have to fight their corner when Price Waterhouse established a legal practice in the spring and poached Pinsent Curtis partner, Paul Downing, to head its network of European law firms. Coopers & Lybrand shortly followed suit, hiring former Theodore Goddard partner Robin Preston to look at developing its legal capability.

But the award for the most bruising headlines in 1996 must surely go to the Law Society, where it was gloves well and truly off in the jockeying for presidential position. Martin Mears, elected in 1995 on the so-called reformist ticket, was having a bumpy ride this time, with leaked memos and the very public failure of his controversial plan to reduce numbers entering the profession. He said of the decision to scrap the plan: “It is clear there is considerable diversity of opinion amongst us.” It was also a fitting valediction to his time in office which ended in July when he lost the presidency to “old guard” candidate Tony Girling.

While the boys were having fisticuffs, the girls were quietly doing very nicely thank you. Jane Betts scored a double whammy, becoming the first woman and first non-lawyer to be appointed Secretary General of the Law Society (it had no doubt had its fill of male lawyers at the time). Meanwhile, Heather Hallett QC was appointed the first woman Vice-Chair of the Bar Council. And the College of Law made two women branch directors for the first time in its 33-year history.

Merger mania continued to grip the profession in 1996, with the largest being the link-up between Dibb Lupton Broomhead and Alsop Wilkinson and that of Addleshaw Sons & Latham and Booth & Co. And two chancery sets, 10 Old Square and 8 Stone Buildings, also joined forces.

But it was the 29-day merger between Manchester firms Donn & Co and Philip Conn & Co that will be remembered as the merger that wasn't – or certainly the shortest.

Leading figures were coming in for some judicial stick. Home Secretary Michael Howard was criticised for his stringent mandatory prison sentencing and immigration reforms, while Lord Mackay incurred the wrath of solicitors for his continued procrastination over the extended rights for audience issue.

Lord Woolf's new proposals to improve access to justice were welcomed generally, although practitioners were sceptical of the proposed cost-fixing and the lack of pilot schemes.

Legal bodies were also in the firing line. The Crown Prosecution Service axed prosecutors and proposed to use unqualified law clerks in their place in a bid to meet the required £8m cut in budget.

The Legal Aid Board was similarly trying to cut down on costs, but its proposals for cash-limiting and block contracts for franchised firms was roundly slammed by the legal profession. The Lawyer editorial stated its opinion that “access to justice has taken a back seat, to be replaced by the simple issue of cost”.

On a brighter note, however, lawyers finally stopped dragging their heels behind barristers and lent their support to the Solicitors Pro Bono Unit.

Maybe the £3m put aside for the Law Society's campaign to improve the image of lawyers would be much better spent assisting the unit. The society would be hard pushed to find a better advertisement for the British justice system.