This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience. By using our website, you agree to our Privacy Policy

Quotation Marks
“Recent studies show the dehumanization of the profession increases the rate of burnout, while the burnout rate among lawyers is around 30-40 per cent.”

Law is changing, even in Taunton

Business
Share:
Law is changing, even in Taunton

By

Dr. Bob Murray illustrates the changes and pressures within the legal sector

Patrick is a solicitor with a small team in Taunton. I guess I’ve known him for over 30 years since I met him when I lived in Bath and worked for the BBC in Bristol. I directed the local news program “Points West” which often took me down to cover stories in his neck of Somerset.

“Taunton has a thousand-year history,” he told me recently when we had one of our Zoom catchups. “And I’ve been around for most of it. I’m as much of a fixture as the old Tudor buildings in Fore Street.”

As far as I can make out from the clues he’s dropped over the years I reckon he’s about 85. He’s still active in his practice and in various local charities. He sits on the board of several Taunton-based companies and is a regular at the Ale House, which he calls his “second office.”

His father ran the firm and his grandfather founded it.

Attitudes

“I’ve always been in law and I’ve always been in Taunton,” he continued. He’s been practicing since the late 1950s. “It was different then. Law was different. It was a profession, not a business.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, that was before the large firms started dominating everything. They’re like black holes drawing everything into them—money, talent, the larger clients.”

“Isn’t that like any business?”

“That’s my point, Bob.” He paused for a second. “Like any business.”

“Isn’t that just because they’re in London where they have huge rents to pay and expensive people to pay?”

“Yes, but the attitude is starting to become pervasive here, too. A number of pretty big firms have set up in Taunton and one or two local firms have grown to about 300 people. You have to turn over a lot of money and reel in a lot of work to cover that. You don’t have time for people.”

Constant pressure

Most of my and my firm’s consulting work is for the bigger players in the market although we have a number of mid-size clients, just the kind Patrick was talking about. The constant unremitting competition, the struggle for market share and the annual rise in partner revenue targets has led to huge increases in stress, mental and physical illness and, as a report by the International Bar Association found, a pervasive climate of bullying and harassment in many firms.

Recent studies show the dehumanization of the profession increases the rate of burnout, while the burnout rate among lawyers is around 30-40 per cent.

“I’m sick of AI and I don’t want to talk to bloody computers!” Patrick spurted. “Conveyancing is blockchain, communication is email and you can download your contracts for most things from Google.” He took a long swallow of his coffee. “There are law firms with no lawyers,” he said with a tone of disgust.

I know people who run some of those firms in rural and urban Australia where many of our clients are based—young people with law degrees and powerful computer skills originally catering to the 75% of people who previously never used legal services because they couldn’t afford them. More recently even mid-sized businesses are using their services for routine work.

“Law was always for those who could afford it,” I commented.

“That’s not true. Not here. Not in Taunton.” For a while he was silent. “Look, what is a lawyer? Someone who knows law, who’s been to law school, who is a member of a law society? All that’s true. But in my view, there’s more to it than that. Here it’s someone who knows the town, the people, who listens—not just to clients, but to people in the pub. He or she becomes wise in the nuances of the locality.”

“The wisdom of old lawyers,” I chirped in. “I wrote about that.”

“Yes, I read that piece of yours.”

“I quoted Ian Humphreys the then managing partner of Ashurst in Queensland saying mostly his clients came to him with issues only tangentially connected to the law. They came to him for his wisdom.”

“Yes, that’s what being a local lawyer used to be all about. The local solicitor was often seen as a wise person. We were dispute settlers. We knew the local council members and could smooth stuff over which had nothing to do with the law. We settled domestic problems. We were about life, not just law. Sometimes we’d barter services when we knew we’d never get paid. We were members of the community who happened to have a professional business, not businesspeople who happened to be located in a community.”

“That’s a big difference.”

“You bet.” Another thoughtful swig of coffee ensued. 

Value of wisdom

“So, what now?” I asked.

“For me, or for law?”

“Start with you.”

“Twenty-five years ago, I said I’d retire in five years. Well, I’m still going to retire in five years,” he chuckled. “The doctor says I’m too old to get dementia and the rest of me is in pretty good shape. I’ll keep going for a while yet. Besides there’s nothing else I want to do.”

“And the law?”

“I think many clients will get sick of digitized law. Humans are relationship creatures. Without supportive people around us we go mad. I’ve heard you say that.”

“That’s what the research says.”

“I think if we lawyers, particularly we local lawyers, can figure out how to sell wisdom rather than answers we have a great future. It’s your job to show us how to do it.”

“You were just telling me that’s what you used to do.”

“Well, yes,” he mused. “We did. But we have to convince a new generation. There’s a biological limit to the number of people who recognize the value of wisdom.”

“You mean they’re dying off.”

“Yes and Ys and Ms are trained by Google and the rest to seek the instant, if facile, answer. We have to learn to give them something besides legal knowledge and show we can help them in ways that are relevant to them—whether they need legal advice or not.”

“Isn’t that like being either a councilor or a priest?”

“No,” he said rather sharply. “I am neither, nor can I be. But I can be a good listener. I can ask questions that challenge them to think differently. I have a wealth of experience—of life and the area and the people in it. And, when they’re in trouble I know the law. That’s the future of law and the how-to of selling that is what we have to learn.”

Dr. Bob Murray is principal at Fortinberry Murray fortinberrymurray.com