Veteran lawyers are always complaining that the profession is going to the dogs. But never have I heard these concerns articulated so strongly – and publicly – as by Lord Andrew Phillips of Sudbury last week.
“This great profession of ours is in crisis,” began the House of Lords life peer, who is also a partner at Bates Wells & Braithwaite, speaking at the annual graduation ceremony for chartered legal executives.
Phillips then went on to lament the eroding of eccentricity in law: “When I entered the legal profession 53 years ago it was a harbinger of eccentrics,” he recalled, before telling a story about a partner who used to summon his secretary by firing an 18th Century pistol…
Phillips (pictured) blames the scrapping of the old limit on the number of partners a firm could have (it used to be capped at 20 until the mid-80s, keeping firms relatively small) for much of the change in mood to date.
But he reckons things could be about to get a whole lot worse, with the Legal Services Act (which lifts the ban on non-lawyers owning law firms, allowing cut throat investors to move in and run them purely for profit) and the legal aid cuts (likely to further shift law firms’ focus away from helping people to making money) set to create a bleak new era of utilitarianism in law. Law firms are becoming more “impersonal, bureaucratic and managerialist”, Phillips continued, adding: “The pleasure used to be in the ‘people factor’, now it is often just about making money.”
Phillips linked the crisis the legal profession is facing to a “wider crisis” in the country as a whole as it lurches into a double dip recession brought about by excess and corruption. “It’s bizarre,” he said. “We were once seen as the most honourable, law abiding nation on the planet. Sadly that’s no longer the case. We are living in a sham democracy.”
The good news is that Phillips believes there is still hope – if the up-and-coming generation of lawyers refuse to submit to “serving Mammon” and instead help to re-build the profession’s lost sense of duty to serve the public interest.
“In the past, our proud island history has seen people stand up to be counted at times of crisis just in the nick of time. That is what must happen now, and you must be the leaders of it,” Phillips said in a rallying cry to junior lawyers.
“You only live once,” he went on. “This is not a dress rehearsal. If your firm isn’t sympathetic [to the idea of fulfilling its wider public duty role in society] then get out.”
Of course, that secretary who used to have the pistol shot in her direction several times a day would probably have a different take on the changes the legal profession has gone through. But as Herbert Smith embarks on the latest round of City law job cuts to keep partner profits around the million mark, and justice minister Jonathan Djanogly feels able to smirk during the recent debate about cutting legal aid to asbestos victims, Phillips’ words of warning are surely worth heeding.