`We are champions of liberty, not parasites'

THE LEGAL profession yesterday began a campaign to restore its public image after being stung by criticisms of lawyers as "fat cats" and "parasites". The president of the Law Society called for a counter- offensive to portray lawyers as fighters for freedom and citizen's rights.

In a speech to the solicitors' annual conference, Michael Mathews, said: "We are the champions of justice, not parasites who feed on it." The profession is still reeling from a wave of negative publicity which it feels was partly the result of unjustified criticism from the Government.

In April, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, outed the 40 barristers and 40 firms of solicitors who were making the most money out of legal aid. One firm was paid pounds 8.5m in the financial year 1996-97.

Earlier this month, the five law lords who make up the House of Lords Appeal Committee urged a curb on the fees charged by top barristers in legal aid cases.

Although the Law Society had agreed that some senior barristers were over-rewarded in such cases, Mr Mathews said the attack on the legal profession as a whole had gone too far.

He said: "Solicitors put into the economy a great deal more than they take out. We must rebut the fat-cat stereotype."

Mr Mathews, who was elected president in July, accused the Government of peddling "myths" that legal aid spending was spiralling out of control, with cash wasted on frivolous cases and lawyers' fees. Yet 92 per cent of legally aided civil cases were won or settled favourably.

Mr Mathews, a partner in the City firm Clifford Chance, admitted the largest firms did make a lot of money. But he said their work helped to make the City a major international economic centre, generating pounds 640m in invisible earnings which supported jobs in the UK.

Most solicitors did not enjoy fat cat solicitors, he said. Assistant or junior solicitors often earned pounds 18,000 a year after seven years' work to qualify. A quarter of sole practitioners were grossing pounds 23,000 a year while partners in regional firms who carry a burden of personal risk and responsibility could expect to earn pounds 50,000 even after 20 years in the profession.

Solicitors contributed enormously to society through pro-bono work carried out free for needy clients. They also made an "unmeasured contribution" through legal aid work. While legal aid spending went up only 1.2 per cent last year, the number who were helped through it went up by 3.2 per cent.

Mr Mathews paid tribute to the thousands of "solicitor heroes", including Benedict Birnberg who worked for 30 years on a pro-bono basis in the case of Derek Bentley.

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