Why put this man on trial?

Henry VIII is in the dock this week over his marital misconduct. A little late for some, perhaps, but not for the 3,000 US lawyers at the American Bar Association conference. It's just a pity Hillary Clinton couldn't make it
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The absence of Hillary Clinton and 5,000 American lawyers from this year's US law convention in London is estimated to have cost the organisers up to $1m. But it hasn't dampened British enthusiasm for the event, which had been billed as the biggest invasion of England by Americans since the build up to D-Day.

The absence of Hillary Clinton and 5,000 American lawyers from this year's US law convention in London is estimated to have cost the organisers up to $1m. But it hasn't dampened British enthusiasm for the event, which had been billed as the biggest invasion of England by Americans since the build up to D-Day.

Yesterday, Tony Blair officially opened the American Bar Association's annual conference by warmly welcoming those 3,000 attorneys who had made the trip to London. Today the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, will deliver a keynote speech and tomorrow the new Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, is expected join a debate on the future of the British and US jury systems. Another senior member of the judiciary, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the president of the Family Division of the High Court, will sit in judgment in a mock-Tudor trial of the "marital woes" of King Henry VIII.

In addition, 500 solicitors and barristers are expected to take the opportunity to visit their American cousins at the conference, if only for a chance to compare them with the characters out of Ally McBeal and LA Law. So no one can accuse Britain's lawyers of not taking the event seriously.

Bill Paul, president of the American Bar Association, ABA was candid enough last week to admit that the lower than expected turnout would cost the organisers between $300,000 and $1m. At the same time he also tried to explain why the Americans were not coming. When the event was last held in London in 1985, 20,000 US lawyers and their families attended.

Mr Paul said the reasons for the scant attendance this time round included expensive London prices, Britain no longer being the novelty draw that it was, and work commitments at home. He said the ABA would have to dip into its contingency fund to bail out the conference.

In March this year it emerged that a centrepiece session involving Hillary Clinton and Cherie Booth QC had been scrapped after Mrs Clinton announced she would no longer be attending the event. Mrs Clinton cited pressure of work. However, there was speculation that she had been less than enthusiastic in joining Ms Booth in a debate entitled "Behind every great man - a woman lawyer?" Instead, Ms Booth, in one of her first public engagements since the birth of baby Leo, is joining a debate entitled "Women, minorities and young lawyers in the 21st century".

Another reason why so many Americans may have decided to stay at home is that they may be suffering from "party exhaustion". The ABA has already organised a busy diary of events in New York from 6-9 July as part of its celebrations at home. These included a mix of champagne receptions and dinners in the evening with debates and sessions geared solely to the American lawyer during the day.

Americans can also follow the London sessions on the internet. Five of them will be broadcast from the ABA's special on-line website. Users can download course materials and view video and electronic slides of the programmes while picking up vital professional education credits.

Back in London, a mock trial of George Washington and King George III - English barristers prosecuting Washington for his "tyrannical tactics" and US attorneys trying the king for his "tyrannical conduct" - will no doubt attract large audiences. And putting Henry VIII on trial gives the conference a much wider appeal than, say, a session on the law of ancillary relief or "no-fault" divorces. These are, of course, pieces of theatre designed to stir up a little bit of American-British rivalry.

But for many lawyers the real drama took place in New York last week when the ABA voted against multi-disciplinary partnerships, which would have allowed US lawyers to set up business with other professionals, such as accountants, from all over the world including Britain. This decision has real consequences for the 21st century. Tony Williams, the former managing partner of the world's biggest law firm, Clifford Chance, and the new head of the legal arm of Big Five accountants, Arthur Andersen, believes the ABA is "developing a complex". He says the decision "flies in the face of the evidence". The American Corporate Counsel Association has made clear that it wants the freedom to choose multi-disciplinary services, while consumer groups from across the US have been urging the ABA to adopt Multi-Disciplinary Partnerships (MDPs) as a way of allowing greater access to legal services. "The ABA's decision," he claims, "was clearly driven by a mix of fear and protectionism."

Mr Williams points out that the vote is not binding on state Bar associations that regulate lawyers in the US. And he says many Bar associations are split on the issue. "None the less," he adds, "it is pointless to pretend this is not an extremely disappointing decision. The US is the world's largest market for legal services and there is strong demand from our clients for us to represent them in that market."

The ABA has argued that the sharing of legal fees with non-lawyers and the ownership and control of the practice of law by non-lawyers are inconsistent with the core values of the legal profession. Mr Williams counters: "MDPs apparently threaten the independence of the legal profession, raise ethical problems and are incompatible with the lawyer's duty of client confidentiality. Yet these issues have all been satisfactorily dealt with by the MDP Commission and by a previous ABA Commission that reported in 1983."

The biggest law firms, such as Skadden Arps and Clifford Chance, now have annual turnovers of more than $1bn. Last year, the American Lawyer Top 100 law firms billed more than $26bn. "If the ABA think these firms can achieve that without running themselves as businesses, they are deluding themselves," warns Mr Williams. He will be one of a number of English lawyers putting this point of view across at a debate on MDPs to be held at the conference.

However, this is not the only issue likely to raise the temperature. A debate on the rights and wrongs of capital punishment is also expected to split the audience, with any defence coming from the ranks of the US lawyers.

And no doubt the session entitled, "Products over the Pond - Is US-style litigation invading the UK?", will concentrate on the recent decision by a Florida court which ordered the US tobacco industry to pay $145bn in compensation to smokers.

The last time the ABA came to London things did not run entirely as planned. One ticket agent added several zeros to its credit-card bills and then disappeared, a number of delegates were the victims of hotel robberies while many more complained of London rip-offs. Some of the hotels couldn't cope with the record number attending. This time the British are ready. Eighty hotels have been exclusively booked and 300 ABA staff are on hand to deal with everything from armed robberies to language barriers.