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BLACK CABS AND BARRISTERS

In Category: Thoughts
Published: 05/09/2016

BLACK CABS AND BARRISTERS

Knowledge is no substitute for experience

I have tried Uber. I have experienced drivers asking me for the postcode of my destination so that they can enter it into their satellite navigation system and then slavishly follow its directions regardless of road conditions. I also experienced drivers simply not arriving, once receiving the following explanation from Uber: ‘It looks like your driver began the trip without you in the car, resulting in the £5 charge.’ It was this statement that led me to abandon Uber altogether.

We all want things to be cheaper, right up until the moment we find that we have bought a cheap thing. I am once again a devotee of black cabs and benefit from drivers who have done ‘the Knowledge’; who know the best route; and, deservedly, cost a little more.

VALUE COMES FROM EXPERIENCE

The Bar Standards Board’s Public Access Rules say: ‘The purpose of allowing lay clients to instruct barristers directly is to remove unnecessary barriers to the provision of barristers’ services and to save costs by cutting out superfluous intermediaries.’

Quite apart from the inadvisability of describing one’s main source of income in this manner, this sort of statement from an authoritative body seriously undermines the public’s perception of the value of the work of both sides of the profession.

Anyone who has ever been the recipient of great legal advice understands the benefit of having phenomenally bright people resolve an otherwise intractable problem. The ability to deliver great legal services does not spring from a good education, training or innate intelligence. Those are merely the foundations for delivery. They spring from a depth of experience gained by an individual who has encountered and addressed similar issues many times before, and who practices within a firm that fosters and curates its technical and sectoral expertise over decades, and at enormous expense.

Technology has taken over due diligence and document review exercises. Previously, junior lawyers cut their teeth on such work. The argument is that clients do not want to pay for a trainee or NQ to do ‘grunt’ work and firms say that this frees junior lawyers to focus on ‘higher-value’ work.

The phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (GIGO) in the field of computer science refers to the fact that computers, operating by logical processes, will unquestioningly process unintended, even nonsensical, input data (garbage in) and produce undesired, often nonsensical, output (garbage out). While great at processing, storing and filtering large amounts of data, they cannot make logical or intuitive leaps. They can only process what they are given. Clients seek value from their legal service providers. This often means making absurd demands of the firms that they instruct for free secondees, staff training, discounted rates and corporate social responsibility obligations.

I would suggest that they are looking for value in the wrong places. The true value to be found from legal services comes from the experience, creativity and knowledge of their lawyers; these things come at a price and it is a price worth paying.

TURNOVER IS VANITY

In 1986 the Law Society lifted the strict restrictions on touting for work and advertising legal services. The immediate effect of this was seen in domestic conveyancing, arguably the area most open to commoditisation. Solicitors used to charge their hourly rate for such work plus a multiple of up to 1.5% of the transaction value; this was profitable work. Suddenly free to do so, firms advertised rates to the public that they knew to be lower than those charged by their competitors in order to win market share.

In researching this article, I found a sadly optimistic article in The Lawyer, dated 25 February 1997, which announced: ‘Concrete proposals to end the downward spiral of fees for conveyancers will be unveiled at a conference on solicitors’ property centres, according to the solicitor organising it.’ Needless to say, whatever proposals were delivered at that conference had little effect.

Today, firms feel obliged to undercut each other, often to the point where doing the work makes little or no money. I have spoken to many senior lawyers who feel powerless to turn down unprofitable work, because if they do not accept the terms offered, someone else will. Quality and cost have to go hand in hand. The decline of one always leads to the decline of the other.

In my last house purchase I raised a query about a covenant affecting the property and was told by the junior paralegal handling the matter: ‘I like it when things become difficult because then I learn something.’ The fee paid was £300 plus disbursements. I took the view that, having asked the question, any adverse consequence would fall on the firm’s professional indemnity insurance. I really did get what I was paying for!

This article appeared in the Legal Business September 2016 edition, Legal Business 100 2016.

Written by Mark Husband, Managing Director

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