It hardly seems a year ago that I was writing a commentary on the state of the UK disputes market and predicting that the only certain thing about the landscape was its unpredictability. At that time, I assumed that vaccines would be the panacea for Covid and that the whole rotten ordeal would be over by now. Furthermore, I felt that the fallout would quickly become obvious. I was wrong in making those assumptions. That said, by reading a combination of the tea leaves and observing the market, I do think it is possible to detect some discernible trends for the near future.
First and foremost the expected explosion of insolvency litigation did not quite happen in 2021. My firm view is that it will later this year, with the slow burn finally igniting. A gush of government money took the edge off the expected tidal wave of corporate and personal bankruptcies and emergency measures (especially in relation to property matters) continued to stem the tide. These short-term bits of sticky plaster will not have stopped the dam from bursting and the cracks are finally beginning to emerge. When this happens (perhaps triggered by damaging inflationary consequences) there will be a host of disputes and with it, the usual array of accompanying mayhem, typically in the form of emerging frauds.
‘I do sense a degree of post-pandemic malaise. Some lawyers are reporting a shortage of big ticket cases – the very opposite of a gold rush.’ Clive Zietman, Stewarts
On a more general note, I do sense a degree of post-pandemic malaise. Some lawyers are reporting a shortage of big ticket cases – the very opposite of a gold rush. In particular instances, the reason is clear. In the insurance litigation arena for example, there was an initial flurry of activity and indeed a Supreme Court ruling on business interruption but the flood of group cases did not happen. It may be that many companies are still gearing up to fight but more probably, the cost and risk of several group cases may have proved to be a barrier to entry. Lawyers trying to book-build en masse have struggled to overcome the practical problems and indeed to attract third party funding. In other realms, my sense is that many companies are battling with huge commercial issues, in some cases bet the ranch ones, and accordingly they are not rushing to spend money on court cases. On the contrary, they are exploring alternative avenues for dispute resolution like never before.
There is another shadow bearing over the legal world and it is very hard to assess. The big city centres still appear to be quiet. I now visit my post-apocalyptic offices a few times a week but the relative deadness of Central London is still striking. Although many of us have enjoyed the plus sides of the pandemic, working from home et al, the negative fallout is a bit like gravity – it’s out there, it’s invisible but it’s powerful. During lockdown, networking certainly became much harder – a virtual gin tasting event on Zoom is no substitute for a real meeting. Moreover, the loneliness and lack of buzz undoubtedly took their toll on the morale and energy of many, in some cases with mental health issues. It must also be said that training young lawyers is much harder in the virtual world and that issue must be addressed.
As I am neither a virologist nor a prophet nor an economist, I cannot say what the coming year holds but, like others, I obviously envisage turbulence of all sorts ahead. The unforeseeable has just happened and if nothing else, the war in Ukraine seems sure to produce the expected a wave of global economic and social calamities that may even dwarf Covid. This event in itself, looks certain to spawn bitter disputes of the legal variety across the globe. Expect the unexpected.
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