I was sat in the wine bar the other day reminiscing with an old friend.

We had both qualified as raw recruits to the legal profession in the mid nineteen eighties; we then rose to lead big in-house company legal teams in the nineteen nineties and were then both made redundant three years ago in 2010 at the time of the “Great Financial Collapse”…

We have no pensions of course. When all the schemes went south three years ago we knew we would be working for the rest of our days. I have to admit though, I never would have thought that I would end up serving behind the bar in the evenings to make ends meet!

“Legal profession”…now there is something to reminisce about…

You know. I can remember when there were 8000 plus law firms, all privately owned, and thousands of those firms (can you believe this…) had just ONE solicitor owner. Back then they were called “sole practitioners”.

That was in the days of course before the corporate money came into the game.

You would not believe the fuss that was made when the banks first opened their advice counters! But it was not long before they were followed by the large retailers…then the big legal factories kicked in buying up all the legal practices one after the other.

The government did not much care for it but once they abolished legal aid altogether they could hardly complain.

Of course the old traditional models and methods had a great deal going for them but none were helped by the majority of lawyers not realising that change was happening all around them long before it got to be a crisis for them.

Back then, during the kind of phoney war, the traditionalists took great delight in the few high profile casualties among the newcomers with their new fangled ways. Every one of them said it was better in the old days, but that was rubbish. You wouldn’t believe how inefficient some of them were…and anyway, just because you do not always strike oil it does not mean that there is no oil to find …it might just mean you are not drilling in the right place or not drilling deep enough.

But boy when the new breed struck that oil did they ever strike oil!

I think the writing was on the wall when that first big City firm broke ranks and took on the Law Society. The Law Society could have done so well out of it really…what an opportunity it had to shape and lead the revolution that was bound to happen…we were all talking about it but so little seemed to be done.

(The Law Society by the way, in case you are not sure, used to be the regulator for all solicitors. It is now effectively a small support group for old probate lawyers, but you can still get a good meal in their rather nice headquarters just off the A30 near Honiton).

That challenge by one of the biggest law firms saw the first significant loss of income for the Law Society. But the real damage was done when everyone realised as a result that actually legal services could be offered to anyone by anyone and none of us actually needed the Law Society in any event.

Then of course there was that scandal which saw all those high-flying partners go to prison for money laundering offences and the collapse of partnership as a business model as a result.

And that, as they say, was that.

The Government by then were absolutely begging for private institutional investment to prop up the legal system. Goodness knows what would have happened had the banks not stepped in…

But do you know there were still people arguing that the old ways were best and that “independence” was more important than universal access to advice, to quality products for the public and for businesses alike and even to guaranteed income for the lawyers themselves!

Bizarre really!

It’s not perfect now of course, but then nothing is or ever will be. So what do we have now? Let me think…well there is of course:

  • A total ban on lawyers practising on their own or in partnership. (That could have been done ten years ago but no one wanted to take it on as an issue even though it was costing a fortune to prop it up).
  • The fact that no lawyer or law business can hold client money unless the business holds reserves of at least ten times the maximum balance held on client account…At least that saw an end to all those crazy indemnity fund issues. Hard to imagine we ever had a scheme when all the good guys paid through the nose for all the bad guys!
  • The fact that every bank, every major retailer and every supermarket offers a range of legal products all at fixed prices and for a fixed duration or your money back, and…
  • A network of so called “independents”, linked by IT systems that send work all over the country to the right person with the right expertise and video conferencing booths in every library, post office and court room. It works on the old lottery technology…simple really. You just network the data, allow people to log-on to their nearest terminal and before you know it you have a printed advice note…
  • Then there are those huge factory operations in the Far East that process all the bulk stuff…so clever really. Hard to imagine that even five years ago people would laugh if you said litigation could be done by computer with a minimum of human intervention. Everything is now done on scorecards…a bit like secured home lending was done ten years ago…if your case doesn’t score the right points in the right places it doesn’t go to the next stage.
  • Then there are the court advocates of course, must not forget them…but now all salaried and working for the CDS (Criminal Defence Service) in a model based on the NHS circa 1985…I gather they are bit squeamish still about taking on anyone from the CPS…Talk about poachers and gamekeepers!
  • Here’s a funny thing. Did you know there used to be a type of lawyer called a barrister? They had a senior one called a CT, or TQ or QC (or something) and a junior one that was more helpfully called the “junior”. Once the solicitors got their act together though, clients just would not wear having more than one lawyer involved in anything and so all the barristers had about a year to find work outside of their own offices. Their offices used to be called “chambers” and you can still see some of them in London…they are mostly now converted to homes for the significantly bewildered.
  • And finally, do you know there are now two hundred thousand solicitors in the UK…that’s nearly double the number ten years ago. Yet all the legal businesses that are wholly owned in the UK add up to just 65…amazing!

Shame about the pensions though…