Legal Business Blogs

Comment: Bringing greed to law – our part in the profession’s downfall

In our 25-year anniversary coverage, Cass Business School’s Laura Empson repeats a familiar refrain about the negative impact of the legal media on the profession’s values in creating league tables, particularly those on the profitability of law firms.

There is nothing new about assertions that such rankings inflicted a huge cost to the ethos of the profession, stoking excess, greed and a culture of mobile stars. Legal Business is arguably the most directly responsible since it was the publication that in 1992 brought law firm financial rankings to the UK.

Our defence? There isn’t one. It’s largely true. It has long been a principle of observation that the act of examining can change the subject – that’s certainly true in business reporting, that’s certainly true in the legal industry…

The introduction of such tables was one of many, many forces that intensified competition in the UK legal sector, with results good and bad. And there were also times when the legal press, caught up in its own competitive forces, became too crassly flag-waving on the chase for profitability and then, without a missing beat, piously changed tack to lecture law firms on ethics, pro bono or diversity.

Some of that hypocrisy has eased over the years – there is less knee-jerk celebration of profit for its own sake – but every journalist should remember that doing their trade with a modicum of success means having some measure of influence – and influence affects real people’s lives. But while such a pause for reflection is overdue on the part of the legal media, there is another side to this equation.

If you believe in capitalism and free markets, transparency is a necessary component. Lawyers combing the media for information on clients and potential clients for their commercial ends, but resenting coverage of their own industry, are on a sticky wicket. And to be blunt, the legal profession displayed considerable levels of greed and materialism long before the birth of the legal press.

Transparency came to the legal market largely because there was a pressing demand for it. A large, growing and strategically influential section of the economy was also incredibly fragmented and opaque. There was a need that was going to be filled. You don’t create a £25bn industry without anyone noticing; one way or another, transparency was coming. Increased scrutiny also clamped down on poor governance and questionable behaviour.

Such disclosure is like capitalism itself – a double-edged sword in terms of the forces it can unleash. There were undoubtedly negative aspects of individual and group behaviour encouraged. There was also creative energy, innovation, personal excellence and the rapid sharing of ideas. That helped law firms to see off a mounting challenge from accountants in the 1990s and turn what should have been an easy takeover by the wave of US law firms coming into the City into an epic fight for global domination that rages on still.

Transparency from a number of sources was part of the environment that in the UK forged a world-beating industry – and still a profession despite everything. If you’re a capitalist, that is a good trade-off, though the profession and its media should remain engaged in getting the best of that bargain – our better angels if you like – while keeping the devils at bay. Ultimately, whether it has been a worthy sacrifice for the profession will likely still be debated 25 years from now.

For more analysis on the forces shaping the industry over the last 25 years see: How was it for you? – the people and events that defined the profession over 25 years of Legal Business