“I wouldn't be surprised if there were a fully fledged merger between a US and a UK law firm in the next couple of years. I don't know of any, but I would not be surprised,” said Joseph Flom, head of US firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom – a feisty comment, but we are still waiting for it to happen.
The closest thing to a transatlantic move came when partner Steven Beharrell shocked the City when he left Denton Hall Burgin & Warren to join US firm Coudert Brothers by forming a partnership that would merge with Couderts as soon as Law Society rules permitted.
Not quite a merger, but Nabarro Nathanson linked with Weil Gotshal & Manges (and later in the year, Nabarros took over 125 of British Coal Corporation's legal staff). On the UK front, Dibb Lupton Broomhead merged with William Prior and with Maurice Rubin Clare. Shakespeares took over Bettinsons, and Wansbroughs Willey Hargrave was created by firms in Bristol, Leeds and London. IP firm Woodham Smith broke up by dissolution, with almost a third of the partners joining Taylor Joynson Garrett – later linking up with US firm Graham & James – and others going to Paisner & Co and Radcliffes & Co. Penningtons and Gamlens merged, Norton Rose joined the M5 group of regional firms, and Malkin Janners planned to demerge.
But there was still pressure on the legal profession. Although the Government announced a plan to spend £7.5bn on the justice system in the year ahead, a “deplorable” 7.5 per cent rise in legal aid payments led to legal aid firms being asked to write directly to the Lord Chancellor explaining that they had been forced to give up legal aid work.
And in response to consumer pressure, the Law Society set up a scheme to introduce awards of up to £1,000 for clients who had suffered loss as a result of solicitors' “shoddy” work. Later in the year, the Solicitors Complaints Bureau was given the go-ahead, with the date of 1 April set for all complaints to be sorted by one office.
A £14m default bill forced a levy of £295 on the Solicitors Fund, following a 30 per cent rise in defaults in 1989. In the same vein, the First Legal Services Ombudsman, Michael Barnes, was appointed by the Lord Chancellor under the Courts & Legal Services Bill.
Opinions were mixed as to how firms were faring. In some City practices, newly qualifieds were on £25,000-plus, with five- year qualified assistants salaries spanning £35,000 to £60,000. The Bar introduced £6,000 minimum pay for pupils.
The Labour Party promised a special appeal procedure to remedy miscarriages of justice. Headline cases included Guinness, which meant an explosion of work for the legal profession.
New bodies on the legal block were the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the Lawyers for Charter 88 Group.
The Law Society relaxed the rules for barristers who wished to become solicitors. This led to the Bar considering de-barring barristers working in solicitors firms, after Reg Nock's move to accountants Deloitte Haskins & Sells in 1989. Bar rules allowed barristers to practise without a clerk and from home, and set up local chambers. The crisis was diffused when the Bar Council allowed barristers in firms to call themselves “non-practising barristers”. Following the rule change, Richard Slowe left the Bar to head the in-house advocacy department at SJ Berwin.
Barristers were also set to teach High Court advocacy to solicitors from City firms.
Coopers & Lybrand Deloitte published a report stating that 25 tenants was the optimum level of a chambers, and it was claimed that barristers could increase their income by over 40 per cent if they took up Coopers' recommendations.
No black barristers took silk this year and only one woman silk was appointed – Anne Rafferty, who later became chair of the Criminal Bar Association.
Compulsory competitive tendering became a fact when Lincolnshire County Council was one of the first local authorities to put its legal services out to tender, while more than 230 City lawyers were working on the electricity privatisation.
The final version of the Arbitration Bill was expected in April/May 1991. The Centre for Dispute Resolution opened under Karl Mackie.
Perhaps reflecting what was happening in the profession, a Badenoch & Clark survey found that solicitors expected to change jobs up to three times over the next 10 years.
“I don't like it when my staff do it,” said John Northam, of Jacques & Lewis. “But I'm delighted when we get someone from another firm. Outside people give you a fresh viewpoint.”
And in the category of “but look what happened later” – see 1994, page 26 – Deacon Goldrein Green was created as the largest network in the UK.