Peter Kalis: Lawyers as robotic bores? It’s not the English way

My determination to do battle with all attempts to devalue the art of lawyering was forged under the influence of some inspiring thinkers on English law

Peter Kalis
Peter Kalis

When The Lawyer invited me to be a guest columnist I paused before responding. Don’t the Brits have stricter libel laws than we do in the US, I thought?

Not that I’d single out any person or law firm, or any agglomeration of firms sharing a brand, for unfair criticism. But some people are thin-skinned, and views differ on these matters. What is a polycentric law firm anyhow?

And then there was the curiosity factor. It’s not that many years since The Lawyer ran a profile of our London office accompanied by a photo of me with the caption ‘The Ogre’.

“What’s that all about?” I asked the reporter. “No worries,” he said. “We didn’t call you The Ogre – one of your partners did.”

I felt so much better. My daughter calls me Shrek to this day.

So, throwing caution to the wind, I’m off and running as a guest columnist for The Lawyer. In future columns I’ll supply some thoughts on our evolving industry. In this inaugural venture, however, I wish to acknowledge my debt to the English legal tradition. In other words, I come in peace.

When I arrived at Brasenose College, Oxford, in the fall of 1973, HLA Hart had just been appointed principal after a distinguished turn as University Professor of Jurisprudence. By ‘distinguished’, I mean he ranks as the greatest legal philosopher of the 20th century.

Recall the times, if you’re old enough. Strikes. The three-day week. Runaway inflation. I remember stuffing shillings into a bar heater and there was nothing quite like climbing into a cold bath and watching your frozen breath waft across the room. Warm showers were what God brought to Oxford in the spring.

Of hot water and HLA Hart

What does this have to do with HLA Hart? Well, my fellow Americans and I were enraged at the absence of hot water flowing from the shower heads and naturally concluded that this heinous deprivation had been aimed squarely at us. I was selected to represent our interests before the principal, so my first encounter with the greatest legal mind of the century had to do with hot running water. Thank goodness the toilets flushed.

The great man’s hawk-like eyes fixed on me. I haltingly said my piece, all the while expecting him to summon porters to evict me.

Instead, he said: “Discrimination in fact and the perception are often indistinguishable to the affected. Please tell your friends we take their complaint most seriously.”

Sensing how mortified I was, he added: “And by the way, Mr Kalis, if it would make things better for you, tell them you were especially hard on me.”

Sir Otto Kahn-Freund was a German Jew who escaped Hitler and made his way to Oxford, where he served as the world’s leading academic labour lawyer and University Professor of Comparative Law. I met him only a few times, as he had just retired. But I did attend a few of his seminars, and I read and reread the published version of his Hamlyn lectures, bearing the title Labour and the Law (1972).

Professor Kahn-Freund addressed the tension between consumption and investment. He used the device of collective bargaining to illustrate how society might manage this. It later occurred to me that, at the level of law firms, which characteristically have mobile assets and intergenerational missions, the balance between consumption and investment should be struck without the introduction of borrowed money. Note to my partners: Professor Kahn-Freund is an inspiration behind our no-debt policy.

When I first met him 40 years ago Dr Mark Freedland was rather new to his position as a university lecturer in labour law. But the privilege of working for three years with this subtle and precise don in one-on-one sessions aimed at sharpening my dull ideas and duller language was the greatest learning experience of my life.

Ideas and expression

Why do Professors Hart, Kahn-Freund and Freedland matter here? Their careers nicely illustrate that law is about ideas and the ability to express them, whether in service to clients or to scholarship.

In future columns you’ll see me challenge those who regard lawyers and their firms as anachronistic and those who would reduce us to automata and algorithms. It will be my way of saying thanks to Professors Hart, Kahn-Freund and Freedland, among so many others on your side of the pond.

Peter Kalis is chairman and global managing partner, K&L Gates