Oily, grasping and bent: why nobody loves a lawyer

Lawyers are there to serve the public. But the public doesn't always see it that way, argues Philip Woolham, the winner of this year's Independent and College of Law essay competition
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The Independent Online

When I left my previous career in sales in a major multinational to retrain as a solicitor, my crueller colleagues pointed out that I was enter- ing one of the few professions less well respected than my current one. Some even went so far as to suggest that in a few more years I might choose to become an estate agent.

When I left my previous career in sales in a major multinational to retrain as a solicitor, my crueller colleagues pointed out that I was enter- ing one of the few professions less well respected than my current one. Some even went so far as to suggest that in a few more years I might choose to become an estate agent.

These may have been jokes, but they do seem to represent the spontaneous views held by the world at large of the legal profession. What is worse, many of my family have a police background, and they take an even dimmer view of my career change. An uncle who spent thirty years in uniform takes great delight in regaling me with tales of the solicitors he has put away, and keeps count of new corruption cases involving lawyers so he can make sure I know where I stand. I seem to be joining a profession made up of a combination of the worst excesses of John Grisham, North Square and, heaven forbid, Ally McBeal.

This is, at best, unfortunate. If lawyers are viewed as nothing but self-serving parasites on the blood of society, then there will be in public perception no such thing as a "good" lawyer in the 21st century. So the key attribute of this figure must be a rebuttal of the alarmingly negative stereotypes surrounding all lawyers. It comes above all the standard requirements to be more commercially aware, efficient and capable of working in integrated business practices. These are all vital, but the job of changing public perceptions of what lawyers do is of paramount importance.

After all, what do lawyers actually do? The answer, of course, is so varied as to defy any clear answer. The trick for lawyers is to show that they are a worthwhile and, indeed, vital part of modern society. Law and the practice of law is not a method of creaming off vast amounts of money from the wealth-generating sectors of society and the economy. Rather it is central to society's successful functioning. This is true across the gamut of law from criminal to the most internationally minded commercial firms.

One figure whose impact on the previous century seems to exemplify this key quality of a positive public profile is Lord Denning. Despite some quite glaring errors over his career, he is best remembered, even a short time after his death, as a proponent of justice for the individual, even when this came into conflict with strict interpretation of the law.

I breathe a sigh of relief when a Denning judgement is central to a class discussion or research. It is likely to be controversial, and perhaps not in accordance with the strict letter of the law, but it will be very clearly put. Jargon in any profession or workplace is inevitable, but legal terminology is often seen as designed to prevent easy understanding by outsiders, including clients. Any organisation that appears to prevent outside scrutiny and to hide its deliber- ations runs the risk of seeming unnecessarily secretive, perhaps even sinister.

Lord Denning expressed himself clearly in the public domain. This is perhaps why most of his obituaries hailed him as a great example of a lawyer and a judge. In many ways a unique individual, and in style no doubt inimitable, Lord Denning does show that it is quite possible for the legal profession to be engaged with the world, and to a large extent be viewed as a positive influence on it.

Although Lord Denning makes an excellent touchstone as a great example of the lawyer positively engaged with society, the changes in the legal business have been profound since his retirement in 1982. As well as the need for positive public presentation, which Lord Denning with some exceptions exemplifies, there is far more for a new lawyer to consider.

As in every sphere of life, the competition for business is becoming ever more savage. There are regular mergers and consolidations both nationally and internationally. New specialised personal injury practices advertise heavily and aggressively for clients, offering "no win, no fee" deals in an era when legal aid is far more restricted. There will inevitably be still less emphasis on the law as a traditional vocation, and more on the bottom line. It will be a rare lawyer who can enjoy a cloistered, bookish career in the 21st century. Making money has, of course, never been far from the top of most lawyers' agendas. For those - quite likely soon to include barristers - who work directly for these companies, there will be a continuing and increasing focus on making money for the business.

In the very near future, this approach will be heightened by the advent of the long-discussed Multi-Disciplinary Practices (MDPs). The Law Society is aiming to finalise the rules governing these businesses to allow them to appear by the end of 2001. Although still based around providing legal services, the system, also known more descriptively as "legal practice plus", will for the first time allow the inclusion of partners who are not legally trained.

The obvious professional links are with accountants, and for business clients there are clear benefits to be gained from dealing with "one-stop shops" for legal needs. Indeed, this greater connection with other business service providers may well go a long way to help lawyers be perceived as more directly and positively involved with the world at large.

My own business experience has been thus; to get the most done in the most efficient way, these integrated teams are the best solution. Instead of focusing purely on one discipline to the virtual exclusion of all else, there is usually an answer available for most problems within the team, and quickly. This holds true whether you are developing a brand or delivering legal services. Although these changes will be most noticeable in the most overtly commercial branches of the profession, newcomers entering any branch of the profession will have to be aware of the economic demands upon them.

The challenge for the new lawyer in the 21st century is to reconcile two opposing requirements. There will be an ever more businesslike approach to the work of law, and continued emphasis on delivering better, more comprehensive service to clients. These will be enhanced by the arrival of the Multi-Disciplinary Practice, in which legal skills will be just one part of a total range of business services, albeit still the most important of these services.

In addition to this, the public persona of the lawyer needs to be unimpeachable; not that of a parasite, but of a vital member of both the business and wider communities. It is not an easy task, nor will it be a dull one.

This is the winning entry in the Independent/College of Law essay competition. Entrants answered the question, 'What makes a good lawyer in the 21st century?'