Luke Johnson’s weekly The entrepreneur column in the FT’s Business Life section is always a good read: trenchant views and punches rarely pulled. His attack on the legal profession three weeks ago was no exception, and it made for somewhat uneasy reading. For a flavour of the tone of the piece, read on,
But somehow lawyers have risen to such exalted status that many of them appear to believe they are a breed apart, not subject to the same standards of decency and fair dealing to which the rest of us in commerce attempt to adhere.
It also attracted more attention than many of his pieces do, and not just in the way of on-line comments on Ft.com, but a post in Legal Week’s Editor’s Blog (“great knock-about stuff”), tweets on Twitter, and no doubt much more elsewhere. By and large the comments fell into two categories: those violently disagreeing (mainly lawyers) and those violently agreeing (everyone else). No surprises there then, although reading some of the comments I can only supposes that they were drafted in green ink.
I read the piece on my way to an all parties meeting in London, on a corporate transaction that was, and remains, slightly sticky. In one of those lulls that seem to characterise any corporate deal, usually an opportunity to discuss cricket, rugby, football, racing – in fact anything but the deal itself, the conversation turned to the column. It turned out that the lead corporate finance adviser on the seller’s side (a director of a Top 4 accountancy practice so glasshouses and stones came to mind) had read out choice extracts to his clients and their lawyers before we had arrived. Nothing like putting the lawyers in their place.
But although there is some truth in what Luke Johnson wrote, and no one likes a mirror held up to them, he misses a very important point. The profession is only too well aware of the issues, and by and large lawyers are taking steps to get things right. Luke Johnson had an unhappy experience, and these are still all too common, but law firms know that experiences like that lose clients, and if nothing else one consequence of the overlawyering he describes is competition.
And while the attitudes he so pungently describes were commonplace 20 years ago, and the experiences of clients reflected this, clients today expect something very different, as does our regulator. Within law firms there is a recognition that change is not something we can or should avoid. Similarly, although there are lawyers who still fit the stereotype he portrays (and not all of them are my generation), for every one of them, there will be many more who understand that the game has changed.