Liam's blog posts

A Review of 'Changes to the Legal Profession'

Mar

09

Now I have never wished to be a solicitor, I have never taken an interest in commercial awareness. For me, it has always been the Criminal Bar. However, I found myself with an hour free on Monday 26th February 2018 and decided to dip my toe in and see what all the buzz about ‘commercial awareness’ was so I attended ‘Changes to the Legal Profession’

Craig Sharpe of Darlingtons Solicitors was very keen to avoid using the term commercial awareness, so to pigeonhole the talk into that of commercial awareness does the talk a grave injustice. It went beyond commercial awareness into the practical and current issues the legal profession is facing and how it is combatting them. It offered a deep analysis of current practice, but most notably in contrast to what our beloved profession once was, which was refreshing to see. It was interesting however to see the inside view on the changes the legal profession has endured over the past 50 years. For me, I took away 3 key things. Firstly, the effect the internet has had; secondly, the effect the purse strings has and finally, the future of the profession.

Internet

Now, the internet, for good or bad, is now a key part of our everyday lives. Even by reading this on the internet that point is proven. However, perhaps as a law student who mainly has his head in Blackstone’s Criminal Practice, I overlook how the lay client views the law through the internet. There are a whole host of resources targeted for law students (the one most prominent in my mind would be elawresouces) however I hadn’t appreciated that if law students can find this, so can clients. Clients can then of course hold an initial understanding of their issue, or at least have read up on it. 

Additionally there is the rise in law clinics at schools and other pro-bono institutions than can give free legal advice before then going onto a solicitor. This culminates in the law no longer being the lawyers personal knowledge. The client now shares in our knowledge, which means our practice has to adapt to this. It is now about giving advice on the more technical aspects and not so much going through each issue as one previously would. I truly had overlooked this, but it rings true for the criminal bar. Clients can see the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance which is published extensively online, they can come to Criminal pro-bono clinics (which I am a part of at my university). And indeed, this has happened to me with a recent clinic client where they came with printouts of guidance from the CPS and the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). To add my own view of this, I think it is a good thing for society that the law is more accessible and digestible for the lay client. If people understand their legal rights, hopefully less abuses of said rights ensue everyday in society. The legal profession is a cornerstone of society however, and as Craig pointed out, our profession must adapt to survive.

 

Financials

The second memorable aspect of the talk for me was the financial pressures. They conversely affect lawyers, firms and also clients. Clients previously wouldn’t have asked how hard their wallet would be hit to get that precious legal advice or contract drafted, now they are ever more requesting a very clear fee structure and want to know how much it will cost them before they instruct a solicitor to act on their behalf. In terms of a consumer, this is a good thing. Hardly any of us would be confident with going into a supermarket, picking a product from the shelf that had a price ticket of £1, getting to the till and then finding out it actually cost us £7. Everything is more expensive than it was 10-15 years ago. The demand on our bank accounts means we need to make every penny stretch as far as possible. 

However, this is true for the firm as much as the client. Insurance, wages, operating costs amongst a long list of other expenses do not come cheap. However, finances are a key thing of modern society, much like the internet now. We need to ensure that we are seen to be charging fair fees, and a set fee structure can of course bring surety to the client, but can we as lawyers accept that they are a good thing? It’s impossible to predict how much time and effort something will truly take, and when factoring in late disclosure and potentially new evidence, a rigid set fee may cause lawyers issues. 

The example Craig used was the negotiation of a contract, that could involve a fair amount of toing and froing between parties, and a set fixed fee may place the lawyer at a detriment. 

The business of law

The final thing I took away was the need to understand business demands. This to me, was something I naively deemed irrelevant to my career. I thought it would be comfortably outside of my remit as a criminal barrister, however yesterday was the first successful prosecution for failing to prevent bribery. This commercial context, I feel, will only continue to grow in the criminal law with white collar crime becoming an ever increasing trend in the criminal courts. The need to understand business practices informs the lawyering we will do in the future. 

Craig approached this with an example of large city firms who are now allocating floors to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and tech teams to impress large clients. However what fascinated me most, was the fact that the firm also has to consider its’ own business practices. What if you are able to get the employment issues from a large company, and they then wish to move their commercial practice to another colleague within your firm. It’s surely a good thing for the firm to increase revenue and become the sole legal service provider to a large company, however an individual lawyer is also a business. If you were to move firm, or set up your own practice, then could you potentially lose that large client you managed to convince to use you for their employment issues. However a collegiate approach in the current climate should be encouraged. We need to strive to improve each others practices, and work in the best interest of our firm/chambers. 

What struck me most about the talk was how narrow minded I had been to not consider that learning about the issues facing firms and how they have dealt with them is vital. I have done as much as I can to get to the bar, but i ought to have taken a greater interest in what the solicitors profession was doing to cope with new and ever increasing demands on the legal profession. I cannot thank Craig enough for opening my mind to that, and perhaps that was the biggest change to the legal profession I learnt myself, that there had been a change in my approach to the legal profession.

 

Liam Lane

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