In the new world order, supply chains have become battlegrounds. Russia has weaponised its energy supply; China its microchip and the US the dollar. The UK, on the other hand, makes nothing the rest of the world desperately needs. We have shut down our mines and shrunk our manufacturing base. We do have world-class companies, for example Rolls-Royce engines power a fifth of the world’s jets.  However, our largest export in 2022 at £23bn was ‘refined precious metals’ – a sector scarcely registering on the national radar.

One of the undisputed jewels in the UK’s economic crown is our legal sector.  It is Europe’s largest legal sector and the world’s second largest – a fact also scarcely registering on the national radar.  Our 1,000 year old common law is the basis of almost a third of the world’s legal systems.  English law is the default choice for many global industries. While many UK sectors have trade deficits, in 2021 the UK legal sector showed a £5.4bn trade surplus and 12.5 per cent year on year growth.  Of course, nothing makes a lawyer useful like uneconomic instability and supply chain disruption.

Returning to our question, the straightforward answer is “no”.  As one of the audience in Paris noted, English law is successful because it is open source.  Its ‘technology’ – legal reasoning – is openly published in the form of judgments and taught to international students across the world.  It may be created by British judges, but their rulings increasingly absorb concepts from the other common law jurisdictions and international arbitration. Brexit has, in theory, stripped EU law out of the equation.  But in practice many EU legal concepts remain, having been transposed into national legislation.

Ultimately, English law is a service. It is so successful precisely because it is clear, consistent and adaptable.  A Kuala Lumpur advocate can interpret an English law charterparty just as well as a solicitor on Aldersgate.  That is what makes businesses comfortable applying English law to transactions that have no other link to the UK. Protectionism will only hurt the legal industry, just as Brexit inexorably led to London losing its status as the world’s financial capital.

Another way of approaching the question, however, is considering not just our country’s law, but our rule of law. The UK courts have a deserved reputation for fairness and transparency. Judicial corruption is virtually unknown.  Happily, despite the controversy that the UK Supreme Court’s judgments on Brexit and the prorogation of Parliament generated, the UK’s justice system is a long way from the politically charged US system. That has a commercial advantage as international parties are content to refer business critical disputes to British judges and arbitrators, confident that they will apply the law in a neutral and expert way.

But the rule of law is more important than that. A legal system that treats all users fairly, and which enables all users to protect and enforce their rights, no matter the size and strength of their opponent, is a hallmark of a just society. In a world where nationalism is on the rise, with all the implications for the erosion of the liberties of individuals that implies, the UK should be synonymous with economic and social rights.

That is a ‘weapon’. Examples of fair societies and the rule of law inspire movements in other countries, such as the Arab Spring, against corrupt and despotic regimes. If Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that top-down regime change rarely works; it needs to be bottom-up.

Like any resource, the rule of law needs careful tending. Many of the current UK government’s policies, such as withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights and the restriction of judicial review, undermine it.  The UK legal profession also needs to take a look in the mirror.  Its eagerness to be the world’s contract writer and court has meant it has pandered to corrupt regimes and oligarchs for far too long.

This author suggests four ways for the legal profession to promote the rule of law:

First, doubling down on innovations that make justice more accessible, especially for impecunious claimants. They include digitisation, AI, leaner and smarter court rules, litigation funding and group claim processes. In his recent McNair lecture, Sir Geoffrey Vos urged the profession to embrace digital innovation and AI to cut costs and expedite cases.

Second, considering ethical conflicts when taking on work. This is already underway. Last year saw the Law Society consulting on SLAPP actions.  Last month, over 100 lawyers issued a ‘Declaration of Conscience for the Legal Profession’ pledging to defy the cab-rank rule to refusing to represent businesses supporting new fossil fuel projects or prosecuting peaceful climate change protesters.  Every firm should consider ethical as well as legal and commercial conflicts when taking on work.

Third, bridging the gap between the civil and criminal justice systems. Last year saw recorded crime in England and Wales hit a 20-year high and charge rates hitting new lows. From the underfunding of the SFO to the reduction of legal aid and the criminal barrister strikes, lack of resources is undermining the UK’s rule of law. The commercial side of the profession should help mitigate this problem, whether by financial contributions or by a commitment of fee earner time.

Fourth, taking a stand against government policies that undermine the rule of law, as the Law Society did in relation to the government’s attempt to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

None of these are easy. Balancing the need to ensure the competitiveness of the UK legal sector – under constant attack from legal hubs such as Singapore – and principle of the right of access to justice with upholding a principled rule of law is a delicate balance. However, it is a balance we have to get right.

Ned Beale is a partner at Hausfeld. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily those of the firm.