Can white knight lawyers return?
There are challenges ahead if we want to breathe new life into the reputation of claimant lawyers, but that should not stop us from trying, writes Jonathan Wheeler
Being a white knight in the legal profession might seem like a lofty ambition, but it wasn’t always so. Anyone who qualified as a lawyer before the end of the last century will recognise the old white knights, the good guys, fighting selflessly on behalf of accident victims. This was why I joined Bolt Burdon Kemp in 1998. It already had a proven reputation as a specialist personal injury and clinical negligence outfit which championed the rights of injured people. I am very proud to have just taken over as the managing partner of this firm which I have helped shape throughout most of my career.
It is hard to miss the billboards publicising the latest cinematic retelling of King Arthur. Even with the legend of the king and his knights fresh in the public consciousness, their counterparts in the legal profession are in danger of falling by the wayside.
The high water mark of the altruistic lawyer followed the Manchester Air Disaster. A British Airtours flight from Manchester to Corfu was aborted because of an engine failure and resulting fire. Sadly, 55 passengers and crew died. What emerged from the tragedy were major improvements in aircraft safety and evacuation procedures, and a new approach for how air accidents claims were conducted. Air travel became much safer.
Claimant lawyers were cast as the heroes, standing up for the little guy. But this reputation didn’t stick. Somewhere along the way, claimant lawyers’ perceived public persona morphed from white knights to ‘ambulance chasers’.
Not a day goes by without the media mentioning the UK’s ‘compensation culture’, a trend the government believes exists. For other, primarily bureaucratic reasons, around the early 2000s the rise of American-style litigiousness and increased health and safety awareness went hand in hand with a change in the public’s attitude to risk. It was claimant lawyers who largely bore the blame.
This was paralleled by a shakeup in the profession. Legal aid was cut back under Labour with its (misnamed) Access to Justice Act 1999. The Act sanctioned ‘no win, no fee’ agreements for personal injury claims, which later came with high success fees or bonus payments.
Some firms turned into ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ factories, as success fees offered an opportunity to start making real money. The old claimant lawyer ‘brand’ was already tarnished by huge caseloads, delay, and a lack of innovation, as well as the litigation tactics that were widespread before the Woolf reforms.
This all occurred against the backdrop of an oppressive political environment. Claimant firms, supported by deeply unfashionable concepts like public funding and trade unionism, were attacked by right-wing governments. Firms didn’t set themselves apart and move forward with a new brand. Indeed, few firms changed at all.
Today, the reputation of claimant firms is still not straightforward. A significant amount of column inches has been devoted to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s prosecution of Leigh Day. Despite the charges against the firm and three of its solicitors being dismissed by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, the reputation of the claimant lawyer has been further tarnished.
But all this should not be taken as illustrative of the work claimant lawyers across the country do, especially in relation to military issues. At my firm, we pride ourselves on supporting military personnel when they have been injured in connection with their work for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Indeed, we are preparing the first test case against the MoD arising from the prescription of the anti-malarial drug Lariam, which has severely impacted the mental wellbeing of armed forces personnel. This is born out of our desire to change the law, and our clients’ lives for the better.
We share a passion with our clients and are cause-driven. We are their advocates and champions, and believe our work improves their lives. We have assembled a team that is singularly dedicated and inspired – all our lawyers have been encouraged to follow their professional passions. And we take care in the way we select the right people, and manage them, to ensure everyone stays true to the firm’s values.
Out of the box
Being a white knight also means pursuing out-of-the-box legal thinking, an approach that has led us to a number of legal firsts, such as changing the law on limitation for survivors of abuse. My firm and others like them are constantly pushing the boundaries of the law with client service delivery front of mind.
One initiative we are pursuing is to restructure our teams to bring them more in line with our clients’ needs. This could be an adult or a child with a brain injury or a spinal injury, or a victim of child abuse for instance. The public doesn’t necessarily see their experiences through the lenses of ‘medical negligence’ or ‘personal injury.’ We believe that clients identify with what they – or their loved ones – have suffered. We know this because they access support and help from charities dedicated to their injuries – such as Headway, the Child Brain Injury Trust and the Spinal Injuries Association. That way we focus on the need, we tailor our experience to that need, and this acute specialisation ensures we can deliver the highest standard of client care and empathy for our clients’ situation, and give expert practical advice right from the outset.
There are challenges ahead if we want to breathe new life into the reputation of claimant lawyers. But as King Arthur embarks on another big screen adventure, now is as good a time as any to make the case for the white knight legend to be reborn in the legal profession. By encouraging the next generation of lawyers to pursue their passions, we can change lives, the law, and the world.
Jonathan Wheeler is managing partner of Bolt Burdon Kemp