THE LAW SOCIETY will no longer support all solicitors equally, only those who are competent. The announcement was made yesterday by Rodger Pannone, when he took office as the society's president.
The bluntness of the message will come as no surprise to followers of Mr Pannone's career, described in The Observer Book of Profiles as 'a spectacular example of what a strong-minded individualist can accomplish by applying reason to a decadent tradition'.
He is chairman of Pannone & Partners, and is particularly well known, both within and outside the profession, for his pioneering work - with his former partner Michael Napier - on multiple claims procedures in personal injury actions, from Thalidomide to the Marchioness disaster. His clients include such high-profile figures as John Stalker, Ernest Saunders and Asil Nadir.
Mr Pannone is strongly in favour of the objective assessment of law firms' performance. 'If any solicitors decide not to embrace the aids to quality available to them, I don't think we have to support those firms any longer,' he says. 'Our duty is to those who have put their houses in order.'
His firm was the first to acquire the British Standards Institute kitemark (BS 5750). 'BS 5750 is not about the quality of legal advice; but it does pick up 70 or 80 per cent of the complaints about solicitors' systems,' he says. Rightly, Mr Pannone says, the Law Society has improved on BS 5750, by introducing a set of quality standards.
Next on his list is a rapprochement with the medical and teaching professions. The standing of all the professions has been eroded, Mr Pannone says. 'It seems to have become the policy of government and others that cost is very much more important than professional standing.'
Cost is important, he says, but not the only issue. Another is the continuing existence of a strong, independent legal profession to be interposed between the state and the individual. The principle is threatened by a series of factors, such as the introduction of a fixed-fee system for non-matrimonial civil legal aid.
'You have all the talk of specialist panels, yet everyone is paid the same under the fixed-fee system. It so clearly gives the lie to all the charters and statements by the Government on quality and standards. I suspect it will be the next disagreement between us.' Those in medicine and teaching face similar difficulties, Mr Pannone says, being forced to choose the cheapest, not necessarily the best.
The new president also has plans for dealing with the shortfall in jobs for young lawyers - channel them into management. 'Nine thousand students applied for the new legal practice course, there are places for 6,000, and we estimate there will be jobs for 3,000,' he says. 'The newly qualified are in competition with the two- and three-year qualified solicitors who have been made redundant.
'What I will try to do is to give a push to those newly qualified as solicitors away from thinking that they have to go into private practice, local government or the Crown Prosecution Service, into seeing themselves as managers in industry.' It already happens in other countries, notably the US, says Mr Pannone. What he and the Law Society must do is persuade industry to recognise the benefits of employing lawyers as managers.
The overall theme of Mr Pannone's presidential year is 'solicitors serving society'. Lawyers must stop being defensive and begin being proud of what they do.
'They put a great deal into society,' he says. 'I would like them to walk a little taller. They are very bowed down at the moment. Many of the City firms do a lot to help the under-privileged, for instance, but are too low key about it.'
In passing, he acknowledges that the remark may well draw smiles, given his publicity-conscious reputation, and adds: 'There is a small minority of successful firms that argue it is not for the firms to have a pro bono ethos. I think that's wrong.'
President Pannone will also turn his attention to the courts. 'As a litigator, I recognise that it is an expensive process. It costs more than pounds 1 to recover pounds 1 of compensation,' he says. 'There must be a cheaper way of doing things.
'We know that matters can be settled when both sides apply their minds, usually a week before the case is due to come to court. I endorse the idea that at the interlocutory stages, the courts could be more inquisitorial, in order to point out and at least minimise the difficulties.' Even with such steps in place, says Mr Pannone, caution should be exercised before going on to what he calls 'Rolls Royce litigation'.
'We may have to start with a Ford system,' he suggests, 'some form of paper or simple oral assessment by a lawyer looking at both sides. It has been tried both successfully and unsuccessfully abroad, and it needs to be carefully examined here.'
All this goes hand in glove with the question of how the client pays. 'Legal aid has been cut back and cut back,' he says. 'Legal expenses insurance has no real take-up here as it does, for instance, in Germany. The problem is that those who buy it, use it - the insurers say they need more people to buy legal expenses policies who do not use them.'
Contingency fees undoubtedly have a role, particularly in the commercial arena, Mr Pannone says. 'We may have to look and see if the private and public sectors can work together to devise a structure in which the costs of litigation are partly paid by the private client and partly by the state. We may be able to use legal aid funding to prime the pump of the private sector.'
Rodger Pannone admits that he has had to work quite hard to stay out of the limelight during his two years as deputy and then vice-president. Now that he has become president, he won't suppress himself, he says, but adds that his role is a mouthpiece to articulate not his own policies, but those of the society's various committees and chairmen.
'I see it as my job to put them across,' he says. 'And if no policy exists, to see that one is put in place.' He is looking forward to his time in office, but adds: 'It is not going to be an easy year.'
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