Author Archives: Me

About Me

Campaigner, blogger and general gadabout. Care about justice, fairness and cake. Bit lefty, bit eccentric, very outspoken, a mum. Creating a rumpus.

In praise of QualitySolicitors

QualitySolicitors, the firm everyone loves to hate, has admitted it ‘grew too quickly’. I can hear the crowing as I type, lots of ‘I told you so’ and ‘it was only a matter of time’. The pink chickens have, many would like to believe, definitely come home to roost, leaving QS looking decidedly forlorn and ready for plucking.

I suspect not quite. For a start, their not-so-new boss, Eddie Ross, seems to know his onions. He certainly knows a lot more about branding than any of the naysayers who have leant their (mostly anonymous) pearls of wisdom to the comments on the Law Gazette’s interview with him this week. And he does a good job of getting to the pIoint ‘It is not about turning you into super-rich lawyers. It is about offering a better service than your competitors next door’.

QS did grow too far too fast and promised too much too soon. However, it is arguable that if it hadn’t we wouldn’t even be talking about it because it would have disappeared without a trace before you could say ‘Amanda Holden’. Nothing like putting a few people’s noses out of joint if you want to make a bigger splash than you deserve.

I don’t like the pink, I’m not mad about the name, and I thought urging us to love lawyers was definitely a step to far. But I liked the ‘Hard Road to Travel’ advert, even though it was probably something The Law Society should have made rather than QS. Being all John Lewis about legal services will really only work if, well, if you are John Lewis, but there’s no shame in trying. I’m quite sure nothing bad could ever happen in John Lewis, which strikes me as rather a good feeling for a law firm to emulate.

I was never quite sure whether people were disparaging about the now defunct WH Smith tie-up because they hated the idea or just the fact it was with a chain of shops that have been selling DIY will packs for decades. I still don’t see what is wrong with the idea of having legal information and advice available in shopping centres, even if having fixed points in a glorified newsagents is not the best way to do it.

These assumed failures do not mean the whole QS venture was all mouth and no trousers. It may not have invented Saturday opening or the concept of fixed fees, but QS helped to normalise them in a sector where for too long services had been offered for the convenience of the professionals rather than those paying their salaries, the customers.

The recent launch of its online customer platform may not be a headline grabber, but it should help member firms to do what QS set out to do in the first place, make legal services more convenient, approachable and affordable for whole swathes of consumers who are put off by the high costs and labour intensive nature that still pervades much of the legal market.

Equally, with the likes of Irwin Mitchell and Slater & Gordon continuing to pursue world domination (and who would bet against them?) QS is an alternative for good local firms to compete, keeping their own identity but taking advantage of the opportunities, including branding, that QS provides.

QualitySolicitors would not be the first trailblazer to make the running then shuffle back quietly into the pack. Anyone else looking to make a splash in this market should thank QS for taking all the flack while they could quietly go about their business.

It is also worth remembering that it is only by getting things wrong that you learn how to get them right (although this does not, apparently, apply to the current ‘Lord’ Chancellor). Which suggests that even if QS is not getting any bigger just now, it’s probably getting better. Shame the same can’t be said for everyone.

Please St Albans cafes, stop serving up boobs with your beverages

Like it or not, The Sun is the most popular paper in Britain, reaching over 12 million readers a week, and is the world’s highest circulating English language newspaper. That’s quite a success story and suggests the paper wields a fair amount of clout. So it’s rather depressing that The Sun still thinks the most important thing about a woman is her boobs.

I don’t know how many people buy the paper for the boobs, but whichever way you look at it, readers of The Sun are getting a bit of soft porn next to their news every day. There is no other reason for having a gratuitous picture of a topless woman in a newspaper, not one.

Nobody cares whether Rosie from Redcar is cheering on the England team or not, and if Katie from Kettering really cares about the starving children in Africa she’d be preparing food parcels, not getting her kit off. And while promoting awareness of breast cancer is undoubtedly laudable, using glamorous topless models to do it is insensitive at best.

Page 3 has been gracing the nation’s breakfast tables for 44 years. Some people think this makes it something of a tradition that hasn’t done any harm, but not everything that’s been around a long time is harmless or a good thing. Female circumcision is not a good thing. Neither was slavery or locking up gay people.

In 1970 women were routinely paid less than men, often had to leave their jobs when they got married, could not get a mortgage, credit or loan in their own name and had no protection against sexual discrimination in work, education or training. Hardly the sort of environment we should want to let linger.

And yet it is still hanging around like a bad smell.  I won’t go into all the reasons why we should put an end to publishing bare breasts in a newspaper, because they have already been set out perfectly by the No More Page 3 campaign.   Even Rupert Murdoch, the lucky owner of The Sun, recently asked on Twitter ‘aren’t beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes’?

Murdoch might hold the power, but things don’t change if you wait for the big people to change their minds, and every little bit helps. Which is why I want to see an end to Page 3 in the family-friendly cafes in my home town of St Albans. Of course, I can’t stop people reading The Sun, but I hope I can stop it being readily available for viewing in places I go with my 5-year-old daughter.

I’ll admit I am terrified about protecting her from the impact of all the sexualised images that will increasingly bombard her as she grows up. I can’t hide all of them, and it probably wouldn’t be wise to do so, but there is something particularly distasteful about being able to get a daily fix of boobs along with the news. If she does see it and asks why that lady has no top on, there is no answer other than ‘because men like looking at her’, not a great message for a young, impressionable girl.

So I don’t want to see The Sun when I go out for coffee, certainly not in places that actively promote themselves as family friendly by providing toys, books or having special children’s menus. I can’t see how it would damage business to stop providing The Sun, or cutting out Page 3, which was the solution arrived at by one local café. If customers are that desperate to have tits with their tea they can bring their own copy and, hopefully, take it home with them to peruse at their leisure.

My local ‘campaign’, if it can be called that, was launched by accident when I noticed a copy of the offending newspaper on a coffee table next to a box of toys in one of my favourite local cafés. I had a very civil conversation with the manager about it and decided to try and encourage other mums to support me via a local Facebook group.

I have since discovered just how much apathy, intransigence, opposition and downright hostility there is towards my suggestion that The Sun is not a suitable paper for a family-friendly establishment. But I’m going for it all the same and taking inspiration from the national No More Page 3 campaign. I plan to write to as many local cafés as I can think of asking them to remove The Sun or at least Page 3 and I’ll post updates here. I hope you will join me. In the meantime, please sign the No More Page 3 petition and like the Facebook page.

A friend in need

Everything changes. Mountains erode, coastlines crumble and even Bruce Forsyth eventually retires. But if you think the pace of change is a little too quick there is still one place that remains constant – head on over to the comments section of the Law Gazette. You can be sure, whatever is going on elsewhere, there you will find lawyers unhappy about something, and normally it’s something said by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.

Predictably, the Panel’s latest report calling for a ‘culture change’ in attitudes towards McKenzie friends went down like a lead balloon with lawyers. McKenzie friends, it said, are a ‘legitimate feature of the modern legal market’ and increase access to justice. Much of the legal profession, it seems, does not agree.

Once upon a time McKenzie Friends were just selfless volunteers who, out of the goodness of their hearts, gave up their own time to help litigants in person who can’t, or don’t want to, use a lawyer, by providing moral support, taking notes, offering advice and helping prepare for court. Now, shockingly, they are increasingly starting to charge.

Lawyer outrage is understandable. They spend quite a lot of time and money qualifying and it must be pretty galling to have studied for years and struggled to get a training contract only to see a lot of unqualified so-and-sos come along and undercut you. And because they aren’t regulated they could be doing heaven knows what.

Except in most cases they aren’t. What they are doing is providing valuable support for people who quite conceivably would otherwise have no access to justice. With legal aid withdrawn from all but the most acute cases, the number of litigants in person, those attending court without a lawyer, is increasingly dramatically.

On the face of it, I’m a fairly knowledgeable, confident and determined person, but I wouldn’t want to represent myself. If someone who’d been through the process before offered me a helping hand for a reasonably modest fee, I’d probably take it. And let’s be honest, the fact s/he isn’t a lawyer is probably a bonus.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect that justice can still be served without legal representation. Indeed it is vital this is the case, particularly when the government seems to be determined to remove lawyers as much as possible from the process of law. This may seem a bit bonkers, but it’s what we’ve got to work with.

Obviously there are risks in unqualified, unregulated and uninsured people supporting litigants in person, but arguably these are outweighed by the alternative, which is people deciding not to go to court at all, or turning up without the slightest clue of what they are doing.

Amazingly, most consumers, even those unable to afford a lawyer, are not stupid and are quite capable of understanding the limits of support that can be offered by a McKenzie friend. And of course, advice is not confined to the unregulated – lawyers are quite capable of not living up to their own professional standards. What consumers need is not a closed shop, but clear, reliable and easily accessible information about their options.

McKenzie friends themselves have acted on the Panel’s recommendation and plan to set up their own trade association to represent those non-lawyer advisers who charge fees.  I would suggest they get on with it, because the vast array of McKenzie friend websites already out there risk confusing consumers.  I would also like to suggest they stop using hourly rates and come up with some sort of fixed-fee system, otherwise they are in danger of creating the same cost uncertainty that has annoyed consumers of legal services for years.

I do wish lawyers would stop being so afraid of change and innovation. Granted, a lot of the change in the legal market at the moment is not of a particularly positive variety, but getting hot under the collar about something that might mitigate at least some of its worst effects is counterproductive. And it will happen anyway.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance” Alan Watts

The secret of happiness

Want to know the secret of happiness? Want to know how to solve your financial problems, ensure the sun is always shining and have neighbours who smile all the time?  It’s surprisingly easy.  Just get yourself an injury in an accident that isn’t your fault.  Any sort will do, although obviously the less serious the better because you wouldn’t want to be in any real pain or anything.

Maybe get knocked off a ladder (not a high one mind) or have a bit of a bash with another car that wasn’t looking at a junction (not a fast or busy one).  It happens a lot apparently, and it not only makes you very happy, you get free money.  I saw it in an advert, so it must be true.

Or not.  A few years ago, when I was working for a national law firm that, naturally, earned a lot of its income from personal injury work, there wasn’t a week went by without somebody on TV or radio mocking claimant firm adverts.

They were right to do so, although legal marketing experts told me that making ads trying to appeal to notions of justice and fairness didn’t have the same conversion rates as constantly ramming cash inducements or ‘no win no fee’ messages down our throats.  More fool us.

There’s been less of it about lately, but then last week Liverpool-based firm Hampson Hughes launched its new ad campaign, and it was just begging to be ridiculed.  On Thursday, Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe on BBC1 duly obliged.  You can see why for yourself: lots of absurdly happy people singing and dancing about with some indeterminate blue and yellow creatures seemingly unconcerned that they had not long ago suffered some sort of debilitating injury.

Have these people learned nothing from the ‘compensation culture’ scandal?  As reported on Legal Futures, the firm argues that up-front payments are often needed because claims take time to settle, leaving people at a financial disadvantage.  They insist only those with genuine injuries can benefit and not all qualify, but it’s no good refining the message on a website, the damage is done by the advert:  ‘Two thousand pounds up front?  Cool!’

This nauseating commercial comes hot on the heels of a similarly jaunty affair from First4lawyers in which tennis player Andrew Castle (an expert in personal injury claims, who knew?) and another crowd of terribly happy people claim ‘this is what justice feels like’ while jollying along to ‘I can’t fight this feeling’.  Getting an injury must be a lot of fun.

If it were only my sensibilities being harmed by these ads I wouldn’t be complaining.  I am quite happy to be upset, offended, wrong or whatever whenever.  And I don’t want to deprive comedians of a rich seam of mickey-taking possibilities, but surely this sort of ‘money for nothing’ promotion is just how claimant lawyers got themselves into trouble in the first place?

Unfortunately, it’s not just the reputation of lawyers that is damaged by the trashing of the claimant industry by insurers, politicians and the press. Changes to the system may end up making it harder for those genuinely injured to make a claim, and those with anything less than arms and legs hanging off after an accident may be put off being tarred with the ‘money for nothing’ brush.

Believe it or not, personal injury lawyers do an important job and deserve to be held in slightly higher regard than they are.  Quite a few of them don’t just process simple, uncomplicated, claims like whiplash suffered in a rear-end shunt (although apparently this never actually happens or at least isn’t at all painful).  Often they are securing vital compensation for people who have suffered painful and debilitating or catastrophic injuries caused by accidents or by clinical negligence.  Not so happy and jolly now.

It’s quite possible that First4lawyers and Hampson Hughes don’t give two figs about the reputation of personal injury lawyers as a whole, as long as they keep the work coming in.  More worryingly, in times of austerity, it will be difficult to encourage consumers, even the most sophisticated, to choose the best lawyer for them, and not let their decision be skewed by the offer of a cash incentive.

Any suggestion of a reinvigorated ‘have a go’ culture won’t do any of us any favours, except the tabloid papers missing their daily outrage about £300,000 for slipping on a grape or £10,000 for falling off a broken chair.  The injuries sustained are not important, someone nearly became a half millionaire after slipping on a grape!!!  Two grand up front?  Cool, I’ll have some of that. 

Justice is worth more than money

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

When it comes to ideas of justice I’m with Shakespeare.  A class performance of Act 4, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice had such an impact on me that nearly 30 years later I can remember who played which part, even though we were in an English lesson and still in school uniform.  Would that some members of the government had had the same experience.

I find myself increasingly questioning what exactly government, particularly this government, is for.  I thought, stupidly, that it was there to protect the poor and weak, the disadvantaged and vulnerable, the sick and ostracised.  After all, the rich, mighty, clever and powerful can largely look after themselves.

I am not going to list everything our current rulers have done that could reasonably be assumed to contravene that purpose.  Suffice to say if you’re not part of a ‘hard-working family’ (whatever that is) you are probably not in favour.

However, this government does take one of its duties, protecting the rule of law, very seriously indeed.  It takes as its blueprint that tried and tested method of keeping order by just silencing anyone who dissents and trying to dispose (quietly or otherwise) of those lesser people who are just a drain on resources and apparently contribute nothing to the greater good.

This is actually quite baffling because, with the arguable exception of North Korea, contrary to what seems logical, this has been shown not to work; but then facts have always been a bit problematic for this government.  If the new ‘gagging law’curtailing what campaigning organisations, from your local community group up to the largest national charities, can say or do in the year before a general election is not sufficient proof for you, then attempts to slash legal aid should be.

You may agree with the Minister of Justice that lawyers are paid far too much for defending wicked criminals, dirty immigrants and scrounging serial benefit cheats (on the whole, they aren’t) but it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it.  Or not if Chris Grayling gets his way, because cuts in the criminal legal aid budget mean anyone could find themselves caught up in the wrong end of the justice system with no means of climbing out.

Anyone in any one of those hard-working families politicians love so much could fall foul of the law.  You could easily be in the wrong place at the wrong time, be wrongly accused, involved in a car accident, get into a fight, drive too fast or over the limit or be mistaken for someone else.  Could you afford a shit-hot lawyer to plead your case and hopefully get you off?  You can be sure most government ministers could.

Politicians might think the poor and disadvantaged are a breed apart, different from the rest of us, who have always been that way.  That’s probably why they have already slashed the budget for civil legal aid (ie for anything not criminal in nature).  But anyone in any one of those hard-working families could find themselves caught up in debt with no means of climbing out and end up losing their home.  Any one of them could lose their job and get sick and need to rely on welfare payments of one sort or another to feed the rest of their family.  And it’s quite likely that quite a few of them will get divorced.  Could you afford a lawyer if you suffered at the hands of a negligent doctor or unscrupulous employer?  If not, you’d better hope you’re adequately insured.

The government has been keen to characterise legal aid as an expensive and unnecessary handout.  The problem is, justice is not about money and once you start characterising it as such you risk opening up all sorts of cans of worms.  The justice system is, or it should be, the bedrock of democracy.  Believe it or not, Parliament is also vital for democracy but you don’t need it to govern.  Not surprisingly no one is suggesting we scrap that because it’s expensive and unnecessary.

Justice does not mean the same to everybody (political philosopher Michael Sandel explains this best).  On the whole our concept of justice goes beyond the purely utilitarian (ensuring the most people possible are happy) and libertarian (respecting everyone’s right to live as they choose) and makes judgements about who deserves what and which virtues are worthy of recognition.  If justice is about making these sorts of decisions then it is more than a marketplace, it is about defining a shared project for the common good.  It means we accept that markets cannot by themselves confer fairness and requires us to decide whether there are areas of life that cannot be left to the power of what’s in your pocket.

Is it acceptable for Westerners to pay Indian women to carry babies for them?  What is the problem with allowing parents to secure a place for their child at a university by making a substantial donation?  Should we pay children to encourage them to read, or donors to give blood, or drug addicts to become sterilised?

While these questions may seem to have little in common with the legal aid debate they all have the same source:  is there a moral limit to markets and are some things beyond a straightforward cost price analysis?  What is the point of having a government meant to protect and nurture society if we simply submit everything to a value for money argument?

This is the point of legal aid, to ensure that every one of us, from the prince to the pauper, is equal before the law.  Without it, what stake do those unable to access justice have in our society?  Why should they submit to the rule of law if it offers them nothing in return?  But rather than justice, this government seems to offer nothing but vengeance.

The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.

(The Merchant of Venice, Act IV scene I)

Rogue bosses get the green light

Today the government has really surpassed itself in taking giant leaps backwards.  Most people probably won’t even notice, at least not until they have an injury at work.  With the controversial section 69 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 coming into force today, which removes strict liability for breaches of certain health and safety regulations.

If that all sounds a bit nebulous, here’s a post I wrote about it last year.  As the  Association of Personal Injury Lawyers claims, it really is ‘a charter for rogue bosses’.

And did those feet….

Originally posted on the QualitySolicitors blog on November 6, 2012

Poor old health and safety, it gets a bit of a bum rap. It should be lauded as one of the great achievements of the 20th century, protecting millions of workers from death and injury at work because of careless or unscrupulous employers. We should cherish it for not only making work a safer place to be but for ensuring that when things do go wrong guilty bosses have to pay up.

Instead it is blamed for everything from creating oppressive red tape that stifles economic growth to preventing kids from playing conkers and pubs from putting up hanging baskets.  Next time you see a tabloid headline slamming our onerous ‘elf and safety’ regime it is worth remembering that last year 173 people died because of workplace accidents and 22,433 were seriously injured.

No matter, these days it’s all quite safe and the rules that once protected children from being mangled and crushed by machinery are now just a nuisance.  Apparently employers are now overburdened by costly and unnecessary health and safety inspections and, it seems, encumbered by a compensation culture that has driven them to an understandable over-compliance with the regulations.

So the government has decided to act and free business from these shackles by making it harder for people injured at work to get compensation.  This is quite easily done by quickly and quietly slipping in a clause to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill during its final stages in the Commons.  And hey presto, the automatic right to compensation for an injury caused by a breach of health and safety regulations, enshrined in the law since 1898, is gone!

It may not be quite gone as the bill still has to make its way through the Lords, but the government has made its intentions clear.  Announcing the changes, business secretary Vince Cable said: ‘In these tough times, businesses need to focus all their energies on creating jobs and growth, not being tied up in unnecessary red tape’.  Such as keeping their employees safe, obviously.

The end of ‘strict liability’ drives a coach and horses through the health and safety legislation by undermining the very principle of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act:  that there should be minimum requirements to guarantee better health and safety protection for workers.

Strict liability, whereby companies are liable for injuries regardless of negligence if certain health and safety rules are breached, is imposed in a very narrow set of circumstances.  That I am unable to explain what they are isn’t really the point, because fundamentally it is about unfairness.

Removing strict liability means an injured worker can’t just base their claim on a breach of health and safety regulations as they can now.  Instead they would have to rely on common law negligence.  This means, for example, proving not only a machine was unsafe but that the employer knew or should have known about it and that it was the employers’ fault.

Even if the worker could prove all this, it isn’t going to be cheap and could cost more than the value of their claim.  It is also bound to make cases more drawn out, creating a veritable lawyers’ playground but doing nothing for employment relations or productivity.

Maybe it does seem unfair for an employer to be liable for an accident even if using ‘reasonable care’ couldn’t have prevented it, but not half as unfair as it is on an injured employee who can’t get compensation even though they are entirely blameless and using equipment provided by their employer.  The risk is created by, and so should be borne by, the employer and not the employee.

Personally I find it impossible to get my head around the idea that responsible businesses up and down the land are wasting time and money on over-compliance with health and safety regulations because they are afraid of being sued.  I am quite sure most of them take the safety of their workers extremely seriously and all the government is doing is handing a ‘get-out’ clause to those who are somewhat less than scrupulous.

Including, it might seem, itself.  The Court of Appeal recently ruled that the Ministry of Defence has a duty to provide safe and adequate equipment to serving troops and failing to do so can result in it being found liable if soldiers are injured or killed.  I am shocked this was even up for debate.  Fortunately for the government, wounded servicemen will be affected by the health and safety changes just like any other employee.

It all looks a bit cockeyed.  Rather than making it more difficult for injured workers to get compensation to pay for lost earnings, medical care and rehabilitation, it makes more sense to allow employers to sue third parties, such as manufacturers or suppliers, where neither the employer or employee is at fault.

Or instead of trying to address nebulous perceptions and impressions and tinkering about on the sly with long-standing, valued, tried and tested primary legislation, the government could get some actual hard evidence about the problem and then go about trying to educate businesses and the public about health and safety.

It could even, as the independent Löfstedt report on health and safety recommended, start a proper debate about risk in society and how it should be regulated.  But sadly it appears ministers have bought hook line and sinker into the ‘health and safety gone mad’ lies peddled by the insurance industry and the tabloid press.  In doing so they are in danger of dragging us backwards ‘to the days of Blake’s dark satanic mills’.

Valuable research, or statement of the bleeding obvious?

Last week I read about lots of ‘new’ research that has discovered consumers are mystified by the legal world and are still put off lawyers by jargon, hidden costs, antiquated opening hours and poor customer service.  Well knock me down with a feather.

The world is full of useless research.  I am constantly amazed and slightly depressed at how some of our, apparently, best brains are preoccupied by why woodpeckers don’t get headaches or what makes a cookie crumble.  Research has also revealed that teenagers who play computer games read less and do less homework, we all feel better at the weekend and, amazingly, performance-enhancing drugs enhance performance.  Not so much research, more statement of the bleeding obvious.

Still, it is the job of academics to conduct research and I guess not all of them can cure cancer or explain how we can improve social mobility.  There is also always the chance that in doing something seemingly pointless some bright spark will make an important discovery.  On the other hand, market research is quite often written off as worthless, and it quite often is, not least because it is rarely about listening to the customer but as a justification for doing something an organisation was going to do anyway.   And you don’t have to be a master of the dark arts of PR to know most statistics, if not ‘damn lies’, are certainly selective truths.

I say this as one who has, and sometimes still does, throw research statistics around with gay abandon.  There is nothing more comforting than being able to validate your opinion with a few choice, carefully presented and meticulously gathered figures; no self-discerning press release should be without them.  But let’s not get carried away with their significance.  As the saying goes, statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.

None of this is to suggest that robust research, properly analysed and used genuinely to inform policy, isn’t valuable.  In an area like the law, where some people will inevitably have to use a lawyer even if they don’t want to, it has been an important tool in attempting to persuade the profession that things have to change.  Some, thank goodness, have even taken notice, recognising its in their own interest now other, more customer-focused businesses, can also deliver legal services.

But honestly, did the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) really need 18 months to find out what people want from their lawyer?  It doesn’t take a genius, or even a market-research professional, to work out that ‘often this amounts to getting the right information, in the right format, at the right time’.

I am sure, at least I hope I am sure, that the SRA found out some slightly more nuanced information, particularly from disadvantaged or hard-to-reach groups of consumers.  All the same, 18 months spent talking to people is 18 months not actually doing very much and the SRA’s had about five years to find out what customers want, although it could have just asked the Legal Services Consumer Panel.

And what is the outcome of all this ‘research’?  A website to help consumers know what they need to know and when they need to know it.  I am sure it will be a very good website, I am particularly looking forward to the ‘surveys, polls and quizzes’ it promises, but websites only go so far, and it won’t solve consumers’ confusion about legal services unless the root cause is tackled more robustly, ie the propensity of lawyers to confuse their clients in the first place.

A further indication of how far the SRA may still have to go were concerns expressed by board members that the website should not become a comparison site, a sort of TripAdvisor for legal services.  This is exactly what it should be so that consumers cannot only get the information they need about lawyers but find a suitable one.  Rather than preventing user comments and feedback on its own site, the SRA should be worried about the simplistic comparison sites that are inevitably springing up all over the web.  Social media and the Internet are fundamentally changing consumer behaviour and expectations and it simply isn’t an option to carry on as you were.

As well as changing the way consumers research and purchase products and services, social media is having a radical impact on traditional market research.  As consumers find there are easier, more immediate and more responsive ways to talk to organisations they will be less willing to take part in structured surveys.

Arguably, the sort of feedback and data gleaned this way will also be more valuable as it will be ‘in real time’ rather than ‘after the event’ when individuals may rationalise previous actions.  In any case, behavioural experts now suggest there is no reliable link between attitudes and behaviours, which somewhat invalidates most traditional market research.  If the SRA really wants to know what consumers think it will have to embrace genuine interaction.

To be fair, the regulator wasn’t the only organisation trumpeting research of dubious value last week.  QualitySolicitors’ own research found that while lawyers ‘tend to be excellent’ at the technical bits of their job they often put people off because of their expense, jargon and lengthy response times.  Strangely their response is to launch a new advertising campaign persuading the public to ‘love their lawyer’.  Well, you can try anything once.

The Partnership Problem

I thought I would re-post this after reading “The Last Days of Big Law” in New Republic

It has long been apparent to anyone with an ounce of business sense that, by and large, partnerships are not the best way to run a company.  There are, naturally, exceptions and I am not going to take issue with the profitability of the ‘magic circle’ firms that would be eligible for inclusion in the FTSE100 were they to have publicly traded shares.  They have all said, however, they would not seek to float.  There are probably many reasons for this, most of which I couldn’t hope to understand.  But I bet one of them is because the partners of those firms rather like being partners in those firms.

The disappointing level of social mobility in the legal sector, particularly acute I would imagine in the largest firms, isn’t entirely down to the bias towards recruiting trainees who attended private schools and who could get work experience via their parents.  No, I am quite sure that the partnership model itself is the source for many of the legal sector’s woes.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty crazy idea really.  For a start, partnerships hardly encourage decisiveness.  Having worked in a law firm, I can attest that getting anything done was a bit like herding cats (and I make no apologies for linking to this YouTube video again because it makes me laugh).  Trying to get everyone to agree is a slow and painful process for which you don’t get much in the way of thanks.  Not really the environment for making cutting edge, dynamic business decisions.

Equally as problematic is the route to becoming a partner.  To reach these hallowed heights, young lawyers have to toil away, often for long hours, somehow meeting very high standards while doing mostly mundane tasks for however long it takes until they are given the nod.  It’s hardly surprising then that the average age of an equity partner (the ‘owners’ of a law firm) is now 60.  With one eye on securing their safe passage to retirement, these people are, naturally risk averse, and, if my experience is anything to go by, some of the most conservative and change-resistant people on the planet.

By promising jam tomorrow, law firms attempt to elicit unwavering devotion from their junior lawyers.  Aside from being, in many cases, an empty promise (as the Red Queens says: ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today’) this is no way to promote the innovation and entrepreneurship that enables a company to leapfrog its competitors.  The short termism partnership encourages also gives rise to the ever-present danger, as Labour politician Tony Benn put it, that ‘some of the jam we thought was for tomorrow, we’ve already eaten’.

While I am yet to work in any organisation, legal or otherwise, that doesn’t struggle with a silo mentality at least some of the time, I am quite convinced that partnership exacerbates these tendencies.  Lawyers feel compelled to protect their territories and keep their contacts to themselves; knowledge is, after all, power.  And so you can end up with the absurd situation of grown, mostly men, bickering over issues like children.

The model is just as useless when it comes to ensuring an equal gender balance at the top of the profession.  While women make up 60% of the trainee intake at the big city law firms only about 18% of their partners are female.  Given the track record of the city more generally in getting women into the boardroom, it may be unfair to lay this charge entirely at the partnership door.  However, the collegiate nature of running a business is a rather effective way of excluding women.

Social events geared towards traditionally male pastimes, like golf, are a very subtle, even unconscious, way of demoralising any woman who might harbour ambitions of partnership.  The firm I worked for did not, of course, exclude women deliberately, but every corporate jolly, sorry networking opportunity, that came up, bar awards dinners, involved football, cricket or golf.  I know plenty of women who might enjoy these activities, but not necessarily if they have to go along with a lot of testosterone-charged males.

The problem is that firms can, and do, talk the talk when it comes to promoting diversity but many at the top still secretly believe, even if they won’t admit it, that to get the rewards you have to put the hours in and play the game.  Not to do so amounts to ‘career suicide’.  Which probably explains why efforts to grow the numbers of female equity partners at the UK’s largest firms are failing.

Just as damning, as I have written before, venerating partnership above all else also consigns many in the firm to a ‘citizenship’ that is distinctly second class.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of such a system in the past, it is patently a stupid way to run a modern company.  I can’t see any circumstance in which effectively disenfranchising whole swathes of your staff makes business sense.

And law firms need those other people.  While there are clearly some lawyers who have the skills to become business leaders, it is a fallacy of the partnership model that just because you’re a good lawyer you can lead a law firm.  Those that think they can prove me wrong, well you’ve been doing it in the good times, that was easy.  Surviving in a harsh economic climate is going to require real management and leadership talent.

So thank god the legal profession, and with it the partnership model, is being well and truly shaken up.  Already law firms at the high street end of the market are beginning the feel the effects.  What is extraordinary, given the overwhelming unsuitability of the partnership model for anything other than self-preservation, is that the top city firms still seem to think the shake up has nothing to do with them.  They should remember no firm is too big to fail.

Originally posted on the Quality Solicitors blog in February 2012

Twenty-three years is a long time to wait for justice

Twenty-three years is a long time. You should be able to get a lot done like, I don’t know, invent new things, build cities, go to Mars and back, grow up. There aren’t many things that actually take 23 years, unless someone in your family died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. Then you’ll find it takes 23 years to get the truth.

This isn’t strictly true. Those campaigning for the truth of what happened that awful day have known all along that their loved ones didn’t die because of drunk football hooligans without tickets storming into the ground and causing a devastating crush against the barriers, even though that’s what the police, the press and even the government were saying.

They have, however, had to wait 23 years to learn the full extent of the conspiracy after the event by the police and the ambulance service to exonerate their own roles in the disaster and, with the collusion of the press, place the blame firmly at the feet of the fans. As if 96 preventable deaths and 23 years of lies weren’t tragedy enough, we are again reminded that agents of the state do not always act in the best interests of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

An independent report into the events at Hillsborough published today has found that South Yorkshire Police and the ambulance service made ‘strenuous attempts to deflect blame’ for the deaths of the 96 Liverpool supporters. This was not just a subtle spinning of the facts, but a concerted attempt to besmirch the reputations of the dead and those who had survived.

Why else would the police carry out criminal record checks on the deceased, or test the blood of all of them, even the children, for alcohol? Why else would they doctor 116 of the 164 police statements to remove unfavourable comments? Why else fabricate ‘despicable untruths’ about the behaviour of fans, including that they stole from the dead and dying and urinated on the police?

If the fact of the police cover up is not news, at least not to the families of the victims, the scale of it revealed by the report is more damning and shameful than anything most of us would have feared. Equally depressing is to learn, for the first time, of the inadequacy of the response by the ambulance service to the disaster. It failed to implement its major incident plan, only one ambulance made it to the pitch and only 14 victims were taken to hospital.

The report also raised ‘profound concerns about the conduct and appropriateness of the inquests’ into the deaths, in particular the decision to rule that all 96 victims died in the same way (which sounds unlikely to anyone with an ounce of common sense). It also criticised the decision to impose a 3.15pm cut-off time on the inquest, when evidence shows that a number of the dead survived ‘for a significant period’ after this.

In his apology to the victims’ families, the prime minister acknowledged the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and their ‘indefensible wait to get to the truth’. Waiting 23 years for an apology must be something of a record (and it’s worth remembering that without the dogged persistence of Andy Burnham MP they might still be waiting) but the catalogue of errors and downright lies now exposed is not enough. The families still want justice.

Justice would surely include a new public inquiry setting out not only what happened in the stadium but exactly what happened afterwards. The government is under no legal obligation to do so, but given the evidence now uncovered, it would be difficult for them to resist.

The families also want to see the inquest finding of accidental death overturned to be replaced by a verdict of unlawful killing. For this to happen, the Attorney General has to persuade the high court it is in the public interest to quash the original inquest and order another because new facts or evidence have come to light.

It is scandalous that no-one has ever been found guilty for the failings that led to the tragedy. Shockingly, even though the original 1989 Taylor inquiry found the reason for the disaster was a failure of police crowd control, the director of public prosecutions decided not to bring criminal charges against any individual or organisation on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

With 450,000 previously unseen documents, there must now be sufficient information to prosecute the police officers who lied and tampered with evidence and the police commander, who retired on medical grounds before he could be disciplined, but later admitted, during a failed private prosecution, that he had lied about the cause of the disaster.

I expect the newspapers guilty of perpetuating the narrative of drunk, filthy, criminal football fans causing the disaster are going to have to do a lot more than issue front page apologies. It may not be possible to libel the dead, at least not yet, but they didn’t only sully the reputations of people who had died just for going to watch their team play football, they prolonged the agony of their families.

It would be easy to think, because this all happened 23 years ago when policing was more like Ashes to Ashes than Law & Order UK, it couldn’t happen again. But if we haven’t yet quite come to expect police misreporting of the facts, we shouldn’t be surprised by it: witness the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the death of Ian Tomlinson and the family of Mark Duggan, still waiting for answers about the police shooting that caused his death in August last year.

However much policing has changed, it is impossible not to conclude that there is still a dangerous culture of secrecy pervading some parts of it. Perhaps even more unacceptable is that, despite varying degrees of evidence to the contrary, for 23 years governments and large segments of the press have been content to accept and peddle the story of Hillsborough as concocted by the police.

If it took the rest of us 23 years to grasp the truth of something, we’d be branded incompetent and out on ear in no time. If it had happened in another country, we’d accuse it of being a police state and point fingers at its inept justice system and unaccountable politicians. It is not acceptable that it happened here and we can but hope it never happens again.

Posted in: campaigns, Justice system
Tagged: Hillsborough, police