Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Looking back on the ideology of the law

I was pleased to see a number of comments to my post last week, in which I argued that being a PI lawyer is a rewarding and fulfilling occupation rather than the selfish, profit-driven role of media cliché. Since writing that piece, I’ve been thinking about what draws people to the law as a career. Are there lessons to be learnt if we cast our minds back to what propelled us into the legal profession in the first place?

My story is perhaps typical, in that I wasn’t motivated by ideology pure and simple. But it’s also typical, I think, given that when I look back on it, I realise that an ideological commitment was present, if ill-defined, by dint of the very nature of the law.

I qualified as a solicitor in 1985. My entry into the law came via a mixed social sciences degree at Hatfield Polytechnic. My first love was economics, which was part of the degree, but as time went by I found the maths involved more difficult. Law, though – which was also part of the degree – came more easily. I gravitated increasingly to law and then discovered that if I majored in it I was deemed to have completed what was then known as the ‘Part 1’. (Qualifying as a solicitor entailed Parts 1 and 2; compared with today, passing Part 1 was the equivalent of completing a law degree or the Common Professional Examination.)

I went on to complete Part 2 (the equivalent of today’s Legal Practice Course) at Leeds Polytechnic. For a time, I flirted with the idea of becoming a barrister, but ultimately settled to the solicitor’s calling. The reasons, when I look back on it, dovetail with the points I made in last week’s post. Early on in my articles, I realised that being a solicitor meant helping people. They would come into the office with all manner of problems, and the solicitor’s job was to help them find solutions. The work was meaningful and interesting, and it meant being intimately involved in people’s lives.

Many years have since passed. I have worked primarily as a litigator throughout my career, with two abiding specialisms: child care and PI law. I also enjoy the business side of the law, a factor which has been instrumental in a previous role in one firm as managing partner and which now provides a large slice of my day’s work at the helm of Spencer’s.

But if ideology was not a core driver when I joined the law, it was nevertheless key to every lawyer’s practice when I entered the profession. Lord Benson’s principles of ethical behaviour were second nature. They were inculcated at degree level, throughout articles, and by one’s peers as one’s career developed. What happened, then, was that ideology was absorbed as if by osmosis. Solicitors were trained to put the client’s needs first, and think of their own profit second. Of course, some solicitors bucked this trend, but I strongly believe that the majority epitomised Benson’s ideal that ethical rules and professional standards ... should be higher than those established by the general law’ .

Things are different today. All manner of incursions have been made into the law as it was 30 years ago. The ABS regime is the most obvious, but it is part of an overall commodification of legal services – the ‘Tesco law’ blueprint which threatens to alter the legal landscape beyond recognition. I strongly support greater efficiency, eradicating all waste and moving with the times, but this should never be at the expense of professional standards.

When I look back on my decision to join the law, I realise that one of its prompts was pragmatism – the sense that here was a good career, which would provide me with a living. But why was the law so obviously a ‘good career’? I think it had this flavour because of the way in which solicitors conducted themselves, because of the sense of duty and service that went with the territory.

Ideology, then, was there all along, and as we look at the many changes to today’s legal landscape it strikes me that it would be no bad thing if it were foregrounded for today’s young lawyers. Lord Benson’s principles should become second nature to them as much as they were for those of us who entered the law two decades or so ago. 

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