Law: How can you put a price on a good lawyer?

With more legal publications producing profit league tables we risk forgetting what lawyers are for. By Linda Tsang

THE END of the silly season also marks the beginning of open season on "fat cat" lawyers. For the first time this year, the main legal publications have all published tables of the leading City law firms and what their gross profits and profits per partner for 1997-98 were. The legal publishers Chambers has also published its list of barristers in the "millionaire" bracket in its annual directory, which includes one woman, Elizabeth Gloster QC, and the heavyweight commercial silks Gordon Pollock QC and Jonathan Sumption QC.

On the solicitors' side, the findings that the law firm Slaughter and May is the most profitable in the City merely confirms what most lawyers - and their clients - already knew. One publication, Legal Business, in its Top 100, estimated that the equity partners are entitled to an estimated pounds 875,000 each, and, according to the weekly The Lawyer, in its Top 50 the figure is pounds 950,000. And Commercial Lawyer calculated that profits per partner at the firm were pounds 630,000. Next, in descending order, are Allen & Overy, Freshfields, Linklaters and Clifford Chance, according to both The Lawyer and Commercial Lawyer. But according to Legal Business, after the City firms Slaughter and May and Allen & Overy comes the niche commercial Scottish firm Dickson Minto, followed by the City firms Richards Butler, Freshfields and Linklaters.

But why publish such figures? Borrowing a concept from the business world - because law firms are partnerships, they are not required to publish their accounts - the legal magazines have been involved in a battle of using their contacts - and insider "moles" - to get the figures for gross fees and calculate the profits per partner for the firms. Some firms are prepared to give precise figures while others will only confirm a ballpark figure, and a number simply do not co-operate at all. The gross figures do not show what the highest paid take home, as a significant amount will be paid back to run the firms' business. And for the Bar, there is the caveat that the million-a-year barristers also have to deduct overheads from the headline figure.

There are a few exceptions - most recently, the Scottish firm McGrigor Donald published its pounds 20.6m turnover figures in an annual review last month, with the managing partner Kirk Murdoch commenting: "Although the review is a long way removed from all the information contained in company accounts, it is a step in the right direction. It lets clients see that the firm is successful with their support and not at their cost".

The first publication to do the "unthinkable" was Legal Business in 1993. Editor Martha Klein explains that the initial reason for publishing the figures was that "given the amount of money that corporate clients pay to their lawyers, those figures should be in the public domain so that corporate executives can get a better handle on the market; and also it lets the law firms measure themselves against their competitors. Greater transparency helps both the lawyers and their clients in their businesses."

There is also a more compelling reason, according to The Lawyer's City editor, Robert Lindsay: "As legal high-flyers become more mobile, the profits which each firm can dole out to its partners are becoming much more important. Lawyers use these figures to make decisions about their careers."

The general view of in-house lawyers - who effectively instruct those law firms - is that the league tables are a good excuse to get publicity in the general press. The totally expected reaction has been in the middle- market tabloids, with the Labour MP Paul Flynn being quoted as having accused top commercial lawyers of being parasites: "These people contribute nothing at all to society."

The tables also give the Bar an opportunity to defend its own corner. Heather Hallett QC, chair of the Bar Council, says: "What the tables show is alarming. With City solicitors pushing to do more advocacy work, it will mean that they will be charging at those City firm rates, which can be much higher than the Bar - it shows that, pound for pound, barristers are better value".

Stephen Ball, managing director and chief general counsel at Nomura International, is another in-house lawyer who does not use the tables to pick lawyers: "As experienced users of legal services, we like to think that we use only the best," he says, "and we also like to think that we already know who they are. But it is good to have our choice as the best confirmed in the league tables".

One leading in-house lawyer, who uses a panel of five City law firms, says that the tables do not go far enough: "From my point of view, I am more interested in the service levels - and I would expect the good firms to be making healthy profits. The figures given in the various league tables are gross figures; the more interesting question to ask is what is being reinvested in the business - in technology, and in the most important resource - the people".

So the view from the business world is that "obviously, knowing the gross fees figures can be useful when negotiating the legal fees. But it is the law firms' business how they cut up the pie - what we want are happy lawyers, not knackered ones because the business is not properly managed or not properly resourced". And the legal press, in publishing those league tables and their analyses of those figures, has also borrowed another concept from the business world, which applies to even the most profitable of the successful law firms - the profits warning.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas