Twenty years of change

What were you doing 20 years ago? Were you at law school or primary school? Had you qualified as a solicitor or a barrister?Here are some reminders: in 1987 Margaret Thatcher was re-elected for a third term; BA was being privatised; the Single European Act was passed; the England cricket team won the Ashes in Australia; and Kylie released her first single.

And in that year The Lawyer – the first independent magazine for the legal profession – was launched. For the past 20 years we have been reporting every week (and since last year, every day by email) on the legal sector, which has changed to an extent that would have been unimaginable in 1987.

Back in the 1980s the regions were about to become sexy. The rise of the Yorkshire firms was followed by the rise and fall of the accountancy-tied practices, which was followed by the US invasion.

In 1987 law firms had only just been allowed to advertise. Partnerships were small, mostly white and mostly male. Foreign offices were a rarity. Nobody talked about billing structures, let alone declaring their profit. There were no PR officers, no marketing professionals, no HR heads, not even any finance directors to speak of – and certainly no IT directors.

Now, though, branding is key to law firm differentiation; all-male, all-white partnerships seem bizarre; everyone’s looking at China and India; in-house lawyers subject bills to the sort of scrutiny that would have been deemed impertinent in the 1980s; and the average partner profit figures in The Lawyer UK100 have become a key benchmark of success.

Have all these changes been for the good? Well, not necessarily. I’m not alone in wishing for a slightly less rapacious version of the legal industry, for example, but the urge towards globalisation and obsession with profit is not going to go away.

By the way, The Lawyer’s publication in November 1987 came shortly after a stock market crash and a hurricane. But more far-reaching than either of those events was the amalgamation of Clifford-Turner and Coward Chance, which also took place that year. That merger kicked off the modernisation of the commercial legal profession, which has seen more changes over the past 20 years than during the previous 100. Since then the UK profession has become dominant within the global legal economy. UK lawyers have been the visionaries, and that Clifford Chance merger was just the start.

There are some things to celebrate.