Lessons from 50 years of legal change
David Kirwan says despite innumerable changes in the legal sector over half a century, clients still need to know they’re dealing with a living, breathing human solicitor
Fifty years ago I was admitted to the roll of solicitors – the proudest moment of my life. As a trainee, I had spent hours observing proceedings at the stunning St George’s Hall in Liverpool; sitting in court rooms located at either end of the chandelier-lit hall – marvelling at the spectacle of court cases taking place within its walls and the solicitors practising within them. Across the road were the quarter sessions – now long gone, like the Liverpool Court of Passage with its Dickensian-style clerks competing for maritime business with the county court, who would rebuke you if you spoke above a whisper. Filled with tradition and grandeur, these courts were a world away from the environment in which law firms practise today. Having lived through the vicissitudes of the legal sector over the past five decades, I have seen innumerable changes. Some of those changes have been positive. The progression of women, for example, has given the profession access to some of the greatest minds of our generation.
The introduction of computers gave solicitors the power to work quicker and smarter; to send and receive material at the push of a button rather than having to wait for the physical delivery of a vital document. The internet has given us the means to conduct research that would previously have been a difficult and laborious effort at breakneck speed, immeasurably helping mid-tier firms who previously didn’t have easy access to information. However, there have been changes that have caused damage to our legal system and have been responsible for the untimely end of many a great law firm. The Woolf reforms, for example, which led to parliament introducing the Civil Procedure Rules 1998, shaped the way we deal with civil matters today. While it was intended to bring civil practice up-to-date and make the system more user-friendly and cost effective, it created more problems than it resolved. While cost budgeting was desirable, the plethora of rules has spawned a body of case law that has become a nightmare for practitioners. It now takes far longer to conduct a case to trial than it ever did pre-Woolf. Even worse was the removal of legal aid for so many. This has been one of the most devastating blows for access to justice and has severely tested many law firms to their limits; there have been redundancies, restructurings and even closures. Meanwhile, a silent but clear message has been issued to the public: legal representation today is a privilege reserved for those who can afford it. The digitisation of the courts has not been an overwhelming success either.
A fortune has been wasted, which could have been better spent elsewhere on a system of justice which now even the judiciary is describing as “fractured almost beyond repair”. There have been many more changes and challenges with many more to come. Throughout them all, I (and undoubtedly other managing partners across the country) have had to find a way to adapt and still embrace the latest opportunities while still retaining clients who have been with us for decades and appreciate our traditional way of working. As we know, there is no magic solution to these difficulties, no one-size-fits-all answer. But there is a universal truth that is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago: people buy people. Which is to say that clients coming to us at key moments in their lives need the reassurance that a human professional can give.
Whatever the method of communication, they need to know they’re dealing with a living, breathing human who has built up a wealth of legal knowledge. In Liverpool, the courts have long ceased to be held at St George’s Hall. These days people flock there to attend prosecco festivals, Christmas grottos and vintage fairs, yet they still attend in their droves. Like St George’s Hall, solicitors need to adapt to remain attractive to new and returning clients. They need to introduce new elements, dispose of outdated methods and embrace change. But most importantly they need to retain the traditions that we all expect from trustworthy law firms: a sympathetic ear, a mental catalogue of legal knowledge – and solicitors filled with the passion that drew them to the law in the first place.