The Mentor Chapter Seventeen – For good

May 14, 2023

I first went to the elegant and somewhat imposing Law Society building on London’s Chancery Lane for my Admission Ceremony. I went with my dad (I was allowed to take just one guest) and I remember we were both slightly intimidated by the building. It felt grand and a little looming – somewhere between stately home and high church. The ceremony had the feel of a university graduation, but was also partly an induction. Although I had been qualified for a few months, I think this was the first time I truly felt part of the legal profession. I felt that I was now  accountable for playing my part. I don’t remember what was said exactly, but I do remember walking away that day and feeling that it was an honour to be included and to be given a chance to make my mark, however small that mark might be.

Over the years, indeed decades, since that day I have been a frequent visitor to the building. The black painted railings, the golden lions guarding the way in, and the steps up into the main entrance are all familiar and reassuring to me. I have often made the reading room my “London office” for the day and enjoyed the slightly faded grandeur of having such a place in which to meet people away from the bustle and brands of the city streets close by.

For a period of time, I was also a member of the Law Society Council and was elected by the Council to be a member of the main management board. The Law Society is often derided for being out of touch and irrelevant, sometimes rightly so, but it is also full of people who care and who bring their reality into view for others to understand better the issues, concerns and diverse interests that they feel passionately about. This is a profession, don’t forget, with members that on the same day might be representing the sovereign wealth fund of an oil-rich middle-eastern State, or who might be representing a shop-lifting child in a small northern town’s magistrates court. From social welfare law to international inter-governmental arbitration, it is not easy therefore for the Law Society to speak with one voice or to make a difference across a profession that has long since lost any sense of having a common identity.

The portraits of elderly men in stiff collars looking down on me in the reading room all had a similar experience of being a lawyer in their time, but those days are long gone. Not having a common identity however, does not mean we cannot have a common purpose, and one that unites our roles and the kaleidoscope of interests we embody and represent. Thankfully, we will never again have an identity associated only with old white whiskery gentlemen in frock coats, however because of our diversity it is even more imperative that we unite around those things that only we are accountable for protecting.

The last thing I showed you in this exhibition was a letter to my younger self – a letter of thanks to an unnoticed and inconsequential man to whom I owe a great deal. As we are therefore looking at correspondence in this part of the exhibition, I would like to share with you an open letter to the leaders of the legal profession with some thoughts about what it should mean to be a lawyer today.

The self-regarding formula for such advice would typically expect me to address these words to a newly qualified lawyer, perhaps at another Admission Ceremony on Chancery Lane. That seems unfair; why should I impose even more on the youngest people in our profession and expect them to make a difference from the bottom of the ladder? That feels like easy, crowd-pleasing advice to appease the writer’s guilt; and it gives a free pass to those who have climbed to the top already, who therefore have the real power to make a difference today. In the end, we should all practice speaking truth to power, not platitudes to the powerless, but those who lead should also carry the example for us to follow.

Dear Senior Lawyer,

If you describe yourself as a leader, may I ask you to work pro bono? Not “for free” but pro bono publico, for the public good.

I know I am nothing to you, I have no standing, and my time has largely gone, but from this end of the career path, I can see more clearly how trips and falls might lie in wait for you. I will not presume to tell you how to do your job, it is hard enough without me chipping in, and I know there are huge pressures for you to hit targets, to be a great business partner, and to be a commercially orientated supporter. However, I am also certain that our families, our colleagues and our communities need you to be a lawyer first before you are anything else, more than ever.

As a lawyer first, we need you to ensure that your colleagues and clients are in no doubt that your independence and integrity are important to you. We need you to have created the policies and processes for your team that reflect how important independence and integrity are to you. And we need you to show your colleagues that they can talk to you at any time if they feel even the slightest pressure to compromise their independence and integrity.

You have one of the most difficult roles to perform and I know you work hard and sometimes feel isolated and alone. I know you often achieve against the odds. It is hugely admirable, but please never assume that because you work hard and are well liked, that your personal values protect you from scrutiny. It will not matter that you are a popular and good person if things go wrong. What counts every day, while you are unambiguously reassuring your clients and colleagues how their interests matter to you, is noticing how you also reassure everyone else that doing the right thing is uppermost in your mind.

My advice to you today may sound harsh and seem to lack understanding of what you are trying to achieve, but it is heartfelt and shared with respect and appreciation.

If you work with less resource than you need, then you are a risk.

If you work when you are exhausted, intimidated or angry, then you are a risk.

If you are unsure if your client or employer understands the limits of what you can do within your professional duties, then you are a risk.

If you are not familiar with your own ethical rules and how they are currently interpreted, then you are a risk.

If you assume your colleagues are doing the right thing without knowing that they are, then you are a risk.

If you celebrate only victories, and do not celebrate doing the right thing, whether you win or lose, then you are a risk.

If you say or do anything behind the cloak of  legal professional privilege that would embarrass you, your client or your employer in a court, inquiry or if ultimately published, then you are a risk. 

If the financial incentives you have accepted alter the way you behave, then you are a risk.

If your reputation is dependent on a result, then you are a risk.

If you do not know or care how your advice or recommendations are being used by your client or your employer, then you are a risk.

The fashion for lawyers, for a generation or more, has been to underplay their role as officers of the court and to overplay the need to be the uncomplaining, commercial facilitators of whatever is wanted as long as it is legal. This is not just a corrupting mindset; it is lazy lawyering.

We are better than this. Society needs us to be better than this. I ask you please to be an inspiration for the next generation of lawyers to know that by following your example, they will become an example for others to follow too.

We can do this, Pro Bono Publico – now and always for good. Thank you.

Take care. Paul xx

To be continued…

© 2024 LBC Wise Counsel. All rights reserved