So, what mattered to you? Twenty five years since Legal Business launched to chronicle the dramatic changes in the legal profession much has changed and yet stays the same. Still, if you were going to launch the first publication to focus on the UK’s commercial legal sector, you couldn’t have picked a better time than 1990.
That decade was an incredible time for the profession. Primed by the twin forces of London’s Big Bang and the equally explosive phenomenon of the newly-merged Clifford Chance (CC), the 1990s had the lot: globalisation, drama, ambition, innovation, mergers, disaggregation, technology, accountants and DLA. Destinies were won and lost. By the end of the decade the profession was different. CC stands out – someone with a longer attention span than I should write a book on the firm in that era – it was an incredible institution, without question then the world’s most influential law firm.
Much of what followed in the 2000s didn’t come close to matching that flux and opportunity. Given the impact of the Legal Services Act and the brutal reset of the global economy post-2008, it’s understandable that there is so much current talk of challenges, innovation and disruption. Those forces are real and will be playing out for years to come but it’s worth keeping perspective, the profession has been through wrenching changes before.
Having canvassed senior figures to help decide our defining moments of the era in this month’s cover feature, many names were cited repeatedly, among them: Tony Angel, Joe Flom, Bob Dell, Marty Lipton, Geoffrey Howe and David Morley, as well as Lords Woolf, Bingham and Sumption.
But the figure most cited, was cut from different cloth: one Sir Nigel Knowles. It’s been a remarkable rise for this Yorkshire scrapper. Like any business figure with length of service who took risks, there were failures as well as successes but it’s been a fantastic personal achievement for the man and a defining one for the industry. The quintessential outsider has largely – but not quite – been assimilated, grudging respect of peers turned to open admiration. Still, impressive as Knowles’ career is, it’s sobering to remember the profession is in many ways less socially mobile and meritocratic than during DLA Piper’s rise. Can such challenger brands emerge again with a law firm model?
But this column is focused on praising the profession. As many of our interviewees point out, the incredible success of the UK legal profession has gone largely unsung. They are far too polite – the UK is a world leader in legal services, the second largest market in the world and the spiritual home of the global law firm and arguably the rule of law. The profession should be far more demanding of getting its due from policy-makers and the media. Next year’s Global Law Summit is shaping up to be another missed opportunity in which law firms are targeted for sponsorship for an event spending more time on the Bar and judiciary.
The UK profession has not only carved out a distinctive and powerful place in the global professional services market but also harnessed much of what was good about its history and traditional strengths – integrity, hard work, intellectual rigour – and applied these qualities to new challenges. It has been an incredible journey. I can’t resist the awful cliché: here’s to the next 25 years.
For more on how the legal profession has changed over Legal Business’ 25 years, see: How was it for you?