A future based on the best of the past not the worst of now

May 9, 2014

Ten years ago I joined the trustee board of a small UK charity called The Solicitors Pro Bono Group. Next month I stand down from what has become the leading national pro bono charity, now called LawWorks. Ten years of my career in law that have provided many of the most inspiring and joyful moments of my life.

In related news, in all the endless debates about funding legal advice, access to justice and the many changes that the legal profession has undergone and will still face, something fundamental is missing. Its absence diminishes the work of all lawyers and undermines the many legitimate arguments raised in the face of such sweeping and irreversible change.

In my mind, these two things are connected. The fight for pro bono and the fight for a profession’s survival are inextricably linked. I’ll try to explain.

Many years ago one of my daughters then aged four asked me “daddy what do you do?”

“Errr…I’m a lawyer” I said, somewhat hesitatingly.

“What’s a lawler?” was her reply.

“Its law-yer sweetheart and a law-yer helps people with problems”.

“O…but why don’t those people ask their mummies and daddies?”

In that moment my daughter put her finger on the key strategic failing of the entire legal profession in the last twenty years.

Why are lawyers needed at all by anyone? What is it that we do that cannot be done by others? If the profession is honest with itself it has never answered this challenge and now we are reaping the whirlwind of that failing.

Accountants, business people, technology, retailers, cowboys and Charlatans can all claim to do what we do. Some can do it as well, some do it appallingly badly, and others can and will do it even better.

Our only defence has been to exclude people from wearing our fancy dress and hide behind protectionist rules. We have not defined what we do so that only we are equipped to do it. Frankly right now all may be lost. It may be too late, but if it isn’t then the profession needs to rethink its place in society and in business and come up with something that is compelling and inspiring.

I am not exited by process, by tech or by fancy branding. I am certainly not interested in the preening egos of those who say the new world is in their hands or the preening egos of those who say the old world is slipping through their fingers. There is no persuading these people of a better more important challenge because they only want to win their own two-dimensional debate.

It is however a debate being held on a burning platform that is floating off the edge of a waterfall while deckchairs are feng shui’d, last orders served and a bloody great bell is tolling for the whole profession of lawyers. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect we have well and truly fucked it up.

So here is the thing, I don’t think it is quite lost, not quite, not just yet. I might be wrong, but I think there is something that is too important to lose. I think we have to reset the dial on what it means to be a lawyer.

We are more than problem solvers, advisors, advocates, marketers, facilitators, tech junkies and process engineers. We might need to be some or all of these things as well, but it isn’t the essence of us.

The essence of us, I think, is in the question “what would we do for nothing?”

If there was no pay, no personal gain and no self-interest, what would we be prepared to do and still call ourselves lawyers?

If you are a doctor and someone collapses in front of you, do you walk by? …Of course not.

If you are a lawyer and someone’s life is blighted by issues that have a solution within your expertise, do you stay silent? …I believe we have largely learnt to stay silent and our silence has pulled us into the clawing arms of everyone else who offers their solution. We now compete with all and sundry, amidst the clamouring hordes, just part of the background noise, the nephew of old Tom Cobley.

If you would do it for nothing however, and do it to the full extent of your talent without compromise and in the context of a framework that asserted collective trust and confidence in the competence and ethics of those concerned, might we then have the basis of a true legal profession?

Would we not then have the foundation of values that everyone can appreciate and begin to trust again?

The conundrum many see, me included, is that as the profession crumbles to dust there is a world of legal need that is greater and more visible than ever before. We have failed if this continues. We have failed to lead, failed to adapt and failed to see that self-interest has only narrowed our views and did not broaden our horizons.

If you have read so far, you might now rightly challenge my thoughts as simplistic errant nonsense. You might wonder if I am wearing a harness crafted by fairies in which I may soon be carried away.

I disagree. We have all relished giving away time for the right case or cause; we have all not charged for everything, we have all seen that sometimes the needs of others are greater than our own. We have acted and we have been pleased to do so.

I can now hear legal aid lawyers charging up to my argument and I know you are telling me that you have worked for so little for so long and you cannot carry on. I know this to be true, but so does everyone and in our heart of hearts we know the world is not about to change back.

I feel legal aid lawyers lost their way years ago and have never found a better way. The path they took resigned then to Havishamesque twilight world. Now they have lost all funding we see them understandably begrudge the time they were once happy to give away for free.

What we should have done, all of us, was find a way for some things to be paid for so that they and we could continue to give away our precious professional time. It was the time we gave away that built trust, that established reputations, that taught young lawyers to be good lawyers and taught good lawyers to campaign, fight and challenge for those who needed their skills more than ever. The more the profession gave, the more it became credible, respected and important. It was the moral high ground, it was our vocation and it is the reason so many lawyers want to be lawyers, even today.

In bigger firms and in in-house teams every lawyer knows that relationships succeed when they are invested in, often over years. An investment of time that had no certainty of reward, but was the right thing to do, the professional thing to do and in many instances the ethical thing to do.

Knowing the client is the best way to help the client.

The profession risks turning into a second-hand car dealership chasing margin, selling extras and dodgy warranties. I think the time has come to pause. The profession should recalibrate, hold its values closer and start to reconnect with people, businesses and communities to be seen to be on their side, fighting their fights and giving their time for free as much as is needed.

And I know I have still not answered the question about who does pay and where the income does come from. An article like this does not lend itself to a detailed proposition, but in a sentence, the wider profession should pay something. It can only be a partial solution, but if we as lawyers hold our values dear then true independence should mean independence from HM Treasury as well.

Lawyers should donate time and donate money and build a profession again to help those in need and to fight like fury for right. If we give away what has to be given away we can then cherish the trust that builds when selflessness replaces mechanically recovered profit.

Let the lawyer millionaires pay something for the privilege of trust that the profession bestows on them. Let those driven by the call to fight for access to justice have the means to help those most in need.

Let us all do our pro bono best.

As for LawWorks, may I thank you for letting me be a small part in your wonderful story.

Everyone should find out more and join: http://www.lawworks.org.uk/

It was an honour to serve, a pleasure to contribute and life enhancing in every way. I can honestly say that I have never felt more like a lawyer than when I have had the privilege to gently hold the hopes of a vulnerable fellow citizen within the might of what our laws will do for those in need.

We must learn to help again and build the future on the best of the past not the worst of now.

Paul Gilbert

Chief Executive, LBC wise Counsel

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