They said the six City firms revealed earlier this week to be under investigation were "the tip of the iceberg". One source said: "I would like to say that they are the only ones involved, but that would be wrong.
"Lawyers play an integral part in facilitating the increasingly sophisticated techniques used to move money around the world, and London is a favourite laundering centre for organised crime."
The six firms, said to include household names, are suspected of acting as fronts for Colombian drug cartels, the Italian Mafia and criminal gangs in Britain and Eastern Europe. Police have refused to name the firms, but alleged yesterday that the solicitors involved had "not simply turned a blind eye" to the source of their clients' money. "They are out and out criminals," said one officer. "They know exactly where the money comes from."
He cited a recent Home Office report that concluded that out of 145,000 prosecutions for drug offences in Britain last year, court orders were made for confiscation of assets of over pounds 100,000 in only 157 cases.
"That says to us that we are not getting the 'Mr Bigs', because they can afford the best professional help, the best lawyers who can provide advice and assistance to conceal the money," the officer said.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service believes that the legal profession helps to wash many millions of pounds of "dirty money" through London every year - the proceeds of fraud, drugs, illegal arms and vice rackets.
Simon Goddard, the head of its strategic and specialist intelligence branch, said that lawyers were not sufficiently scrupulous about meeting their legal obligation to report suspicious transactions. "They are either ignorant of the law, which seems unlikely, or else they are ignoring it," he said.
"The reason is money first, money second, money third. You don't become a lawyer to perform a public service, you become a lawyer to make money. It's a competitive business; if you turn a client away, he will just go down the road to the next firm."
London, Mr Goddard said, had become an important laundering centre because, perversely, of its reputation for financial probity. "If an organised criminal can get money moving through London, then it has a stamp of respectability about it," he said. "When it is then moved on to a bank in, say, New York, the fact that it comes from London allays concerns about its provenance."
Mr Goddard said lawyers provided the "respectable interface" between organised crime and financial institutions.
"A criminal can no longer walk into a bank with a suitcase of money," he said. "A solicitor, on the other hand, can open an account on a client's behalf because he already has a relationship with the bank.
"At the end of the day, he can plead client confidentiality. But that money represents drugs, it represents arms, people- smuggling, the vice trade. It represents human suffering."Reuse content