January 1, 2005

“Daddy, what job do you do?”

“I’m a solicitor sweetheart”

“Oh…what’s one of those?”

“A solicitor is someone who helps people”

“Like the lollypop lady at school, or like a nurse?”

“No not exactly. A solicitor is there to help people buy their house, or get money from people who do wrong things to them, or who helps them in court when they might have done something wrong themselves, or who helps people to run their own businesses more successfully.”

“Oh I see…but Daddy, what will you do when the banks do all the conveyancing, the claims handlers take all the PI work, Legal Aid is abolished and the in-house legal departments are outsourced to accountancy firms?

Not a real conversation, but it is a really good point…

Solicitors everywhere, on the high street, in the City, in-house should be (and I believe are) concerned at the erosion of work, markets, status and reputation. The issues this raises and the way these issues are addressed will determine whether we develop and prosper or gradually lose ground and disappear.

If it is going to get better we ought to understand why it started to go wrong in the first place. One of the many issues facing the legal profession today is that in the 1980’s it started to turn its back on what might be called “core values” and at the same time decided to compete in the Thatcherite playground called the marketplace.

This was a bad move for two reasons. First, “Solicitor” is a damn good brand and the core values that underpin the brand should be as obvious as they are to people who buy Coca Cola, Dyson vacuum cleaners or Paul Smith suits. Neglecting such values was and is stupid. Secondly, competing in the marketplace, while a necessity, is not a good idea unless and until you have a mastery of cost control, marketing, information technology and a product you can sell. Regrettably not many were equipped to do so.

So instead of a profession that even today is full of the hardest working, creative problem solvers who continually work to high standards of care and with integrity, we are perceived by too many, as incompetent or fat cats, or both.

What is more, great swathes of work that traditionally have been the reserve of solicitors have been gobbled up by smart business people with an eye to making a handy profit simply because they can package a product, sell it and then manage a margin.

The way back, however, is easy. It is easy because it is within the hands of the profession to do something about it for itself.

First the profession must promote and restore its core values and relish the value in its brand. Trust is an intangible quality but it is like the air in our lungs. You can’t see it or touch it but let it go and the body will die.

The profession has to invest more and more in the honour that is self-regulation (I say invest deliberately, I do not just mean spend more money). It has to uphold and be seen to uphold the highest possible standards of care. Relevant training is also important and needs to emphasise skills as well as legal expertise. It is no good being a big brain if you cannot communicate, empathise or relate to real human beings. Included in this must be a rediscovery of valuing and promoting ethical conduct. Ethics may be an old fashioned concept, but it is central to ensuring justice, fairness and quality and should therefore be a key theme in every aspect of a lawyer’s training.

Secondly, the profession really does have to get a grip with how to run a business. The great conundrum for many is that every day minor miracles are performed on behalf of every size and shape of client. Imaginative, innovative solutions are found to intractable problems, but ask the same lawyers to turn 180 degrees to face their own world and be entrepreneurs in their own businesses and different rules seemingly apply.

Even those very clever lawyers in the City of London earning all our invisible earnings have a great deal to learn…You just cannot keep hiking costs and not expect your clients to grumble and maybe even go elsewhere. It only takes one prick to burst a bubble and the City is not free of pricks.

If lawyers cannot find the time to run their businesses properly, they must find business people you will. But what is needed more than anything is the willingness to be risk sensitive, not risk averse and to innovate. The profession must adapt and move on taking all that should be valued with it but finding the new markets and the new opportunities where our great brand may flourish.

Too often the profession seems to fight in trenches, not giving up a single inch and suffering massive casualties along the way. How much better to recognise unique strengths and values and determinedly climb out of the trenches to seek new territories to conquer.

And so to finish with a toast to all solicitors everywhere.

Let us raise our glasses and consider this thought. However fine the grape may be, the grape has no option but to change and if change it must, then how much better to become fine wine than to wither on the vine.

Paul Gilbert

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