Law: Why don't lawyers learn to spin?

Complaints against solicitors are increasing. But they could do more to avoid getting such a bad press.
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The Independent Culture
WE ARE not even half-way through the legal calendar and lawyers have already grabbed a full 12 months' worth of headlines.

One reason for this is Cherie Booth QC. Wherever she goes, the media pack follows, ready to pounce on any hint of implied criticism of her husband's Government's policies. At the ChildLine Conference last week, much was written on Mrs Blair's support for greater protection of children in court. But even more was made of the fact that Jack Straw, who had been speaking at the event, was responsible for the legislation, the Youth and Criminal Justice Bill, which many thought did not go far enough. Then, on Saturday, at the Women Lawyers' Forum, her comments in favour of paternity leave for men were seized upon and placed in context of Labour's position - prepared to allow men time off, but less happy for employers to pay for it.

While Cherie Booth can't help the vast majority of the coverage she attracts, other lawyers can. Recently, the legal profession has been accused of sexism, racism and unsavoury joke-telling. The Lord Chancellor, the Attorney General and the Lord Chief Justice are all to defend claims that they breached sex-discrimination legislation in the appointment of barristers to carry out key legal work for the Government. And, in April, Lord Irvine was found guilty of sex discrimination when he appointed one of his close friends as his special adviser.

In turn, Lord Irvine has personally reprimanded Judge Graham Boal for making a sexist, racist and homophobic after-dinner joke in front of a packed audience of leading lawyers. He has also written to five more judges following complaints from members of the public of rudeness and conduct unbefitting the judiciary. A fortnight ago, John Mackenzie, a solicitor advocate, accused one of the country's most senior judges, Mr Justice Ian Kennedy, of intimidation, petulance and contempt during his conduct of a trial in the High Court. And in Scotland, it emerged that a senior advocate has been suspended from a list of Scottish Crown prosecutors following allegations that he made a racist comment at a Christmas party for lawyers. In July, rude and arrogant barristers are expected to be ordered to pay compensation to clients of up to pounds 2,000 when new proposals come before the Bar Council. The clampdown follows a string of cases in which clients have complained to Michael Scott, the Bar Complaints Commissioner, that their barrister had been rude, pompous or arrogant. Solicitors have not escaped the incriminations.

The Crown Prosecution Service is now facing an investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality as well as two outstanding claims for race discrimination. On a much larger scale, complaints against solicitors' incompetence have reached record levels. A report published last month showed that these totalled 31,672. The profession's own complaints body, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), has such a serious backlog of complaints that it has been given a final warning by Geoff Hoon, the minister of state at the Lord Chancellor's Department. The legal profession isn't helping itself. Last month's advertising campaign designed to draw attention to the Government's plans to reform legal aid incurred the Lord Chancellor's wrath. He dashed off another letter, this time to Michael Mathews, president of the Law Society, accusing the Society of wasting money on the campaign and being less than economical with the truth about his reforms.

Last week the row with the Law Society intensified after it emerged that Lord Irvine had threatened to cut funds that the Society uses to finance its trade union activities.

In a letter written to Michael Mathews, Lord Irvine said he was now opposed to the Society using solicitors' financial contributions for trade union purposes. He said that, in principle, a "professional association" should not be permitted to demand payment from its members to pay for trade union functions. This is being interpreted by solicitors as a step towards the Government's hidden agenda to separate the Law Society's regulatory function from its trade union role.

But, contrary to what is written, it hasn't all been bad news for lawyers. The City law firms Norton Rose and Allen & Overy recently both won the 1999 Queen's Award for Export Achievement. The contribution that City law firms make to British exports is always overlooked in the "fat cat" lawyer-bashing. Last year, a government report showed that legal advice accounted for pounds 644m of overseas earnings, a 20 per cent leap from the year before. Also, more lawyers than ever before are doing pro bono work, offering legal advice to people where there previously was none. If the legal profession could muster its collective resources and instruct a PR firm to handle its public image, these might be areas of work worth highlighting.