Alien abductions and changing the habits of a lifetime: my thoughts on 2011 and 2012 (part 1)
So this will (probably) be my last blog post of 2011, just over a year since I wrote my first one on the Legal Futures website (which you should read if you don’t, the website that is, not my post). I was inspired to write because I was fed up with just sighing loudly and shaking my head at the absurd reporting of a survey suggesting most, if not all, high street law firms would come out of the ABS mangle alive. One year on, sadly, not much has changed with the way many lawyers think about the changes taking place in the legal market. Lots else has though.
For a start, and this may or may not be of interest to you, I lost my job. Just one more victim of the recession, or at least one law firm’s decision that I was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Pretty much everything I think about it is probably in my (in)famous post about working with lawyers when you aren’t one. Despite it being unwelcome and unexpected at the time, I'm glad it happened. It spurred me to go freelance, and that, arguably, means said law firm’s loss is Quality Solicitors' gain.
It did seem a bit odd to lose a job that was all about preparing and positioning a firm for the liberalisation of the legal market in the year that revolution was supposed to take off. In the end, the revolution was more of a stutter down the runway than a soaring take off, although there is no doubt it's on its way. There may have only been one alternative business structure (ABS) set up in 2011, but there has been plenty of manoeuvring by others keen to get going early in 2012.
Believe it or not, back in 2008 the Lawyer magazine saw fit to name me as one of their ‘Hot 100’ most influential people in the legal market. First at Which?, then at said law firm, I'd been working for a transformation in the way lawyers thought about and behaved towards consumers. It must be a testament to my failure, and the Lawyer’s lack of judgement, that things have progressed so slowly and some problems, like unclear charging and poor communication, were still endemic in 2011.
The original Solicitors from Hell might have bitten the dust in November of this year, but its predictable, phoenix-like reappearance barely a month later suggests some consumers still feel aggrieved. It’s resurrection just proves I was right to think the Law Society’s all-out campaign of attack on the website was neither well-judged, proportionate nor a good use of resources. I am sure it could achieve a lot more by being more open about some of the issues people feel the need to vent on there. Rather like its somewhat irrational objection to Quality Solicitors’ use of the word ‘quality’
With leadership like this I suppose it’s no surprise the profession is moving into the 21st century at a snail’s pace. I sometimes think it would have been quicker to put every lawyer in a big boat, send it on a one-way trip to the North Pole and start all over again. For my sanity’s sake, if I were going to have one wish for 2012, over and above all the usual ones for world peace and a flat stomach, it would be for lawyers to start taking notice of what I've been going on about (and I promise it's not just me).
It shouldn’t be too hard. Just stop charging by the hour, speak in normal language, take all complaints seriously, be nice to your non-lawyer colleagues, learn to use email and the internet and listen to what your clients are really asking you (not what you think they are asking you). That way I can move on to more interesting issues and fulfill my ambition to do something meaningful with my life.
If the consumer legal revolution hasn’t quite materialised, the government is doing its best to bring another one about by introducing the bill that threatens to undermine access to justice at least as much as liberalisation was supposed to foster it. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) removes so many areas from the scope of legal aid there is a danger only the rich will be able to get redress should anything ever go wrong. And by rich I mean David Cameron or Jonathan Djanogly kind of rich, not family-living-in-five-bed-house-in-quite-expensive-part-of-London rich.
Some of the ‘unintended’ consequences of LASPO would be more people representing themselves in court, more people losing their homes, more people with spiralling debt problems and more victims of clinical negligence going uncompensated. I say ‘unintended’, but it is quite clear to anyone who takes even just a cursory interest in legal issues that this is exactly what will happen, even if its not the stated purpose of the bill.
Other brilliant government ideas for reforming the legal system include banning referral fees in personal injury cases. This to tackle a 'compensation culture' that almost everyone, except the insurance industry, agrees doesn't exist , and even though there is no agreed definition for a referral fee. It doesn't take a genius to work out that a ban, rather than stamping out something that doesn't actually exist, will probably only make the process even less transparent for consumers.
My second wish for 2012 is for a UFO to land on the Ministry of Justice and kidnap the ministers and all the civil servants responsible for LASPO and take them to a planet far far away, where they would be forced to live in a society that afforded them rights but no means to enforce them FOR ALL ETERNITY. In fact, I would also like the aliens to capture the rest of the Cabinet too, just to be on the safe side.
I suppose it is just as farfetched to wish aliens would abduct the government as it is to expect lawyers to change the habits of a lifetime. If I’m pushed, I’d be prepared to call a halt to the aliens if ministers, who clearly know nothing about our legal system and care even less for the constitutional principle of access to justice, would agree to drop LASPO. But I’m not giving the lawyers a get out. They’ve had long enough.