Tag Archives: Legal Services Act

It’s not just about the money

I was made redundant yesterday, along with about half of my colleagues. Redundancies in the legal profession are increasingly common but what’s rare about them is that both the Coalition and Labour bear responsibility for them. The economy has taken its toll but the Legal Services Act has been running alongside the economy in parallel. The upcoming LASPO and Jackson reforms won’t have a dramatic impact on my firm but only because we’d long ago given up on trying to break even doing most Legal Aid work and personal injury. We resented successive governments for putting us in a position where, for example, I once had to tell a client asking where his very elderly neighbour might find free legal advice that the nearest place for her problem was London. We’ve all given loads of free advice over the years but she needed advice on something none of us really knew about so there was little we could do.

As soon as restructuring was announced, I knew I was at risk (in a pool of one) and guessed who else would be. If you’ve read my blog before, you may know I’ve looked to leave before. It was always going to be a wrench. I’ve been a permanent employee for 12 years (a third of my life) and temped there for three summers from the age of 19. Others have been there far longer, and some since they were even younger. This isn’t our first round of redundancies since the sky fell down in 2008. I sincerely hope it’s the last. Because of the restructuring, our office has closed its doors. Those who still have jobs will be leaving behind friends, colleagues and memories.

The night before my formal at risk meeting, I dreamed of my grandparents. I was walking around their home, one street from where I was born. It was all wrong. Every room differed from reality. It doesn’t take a psychologist to interpret this one. Nothing lasts forever. What shocked me though was the conscious reality that met me the next day. When I came out of the meeting, I recognised my response. I hadn’t felt it in over a decade, when I heard my grandad had died. Bile, rising in my throat. Concerned colleagues stopped by one by one, some about to be in the same boat as me, some safe. “It’s not like I didn’t see it coming,” I said to a man I’ve known for nearly 17 years. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

I do though. We’re family and it’s the nature of the firm to feel the historical ties that bind us. Another person who’s redundant said that we’re all institutionalised, as we chatted about the ghost in the building, the sites of my many accidents in it, the people who went before us. We talked about the future too, what we do next. We all huddled together during the redundancy process, lost and aimless, drifting from one activity to the next. It wasn’t until everything was decided that we shook that feeling off. What I’d give to draft a really good contract right now, just to take my mind off it, I said. When a client asked me to draft a contract urgently a week before my last day, after they’d refused the buyer’s terms on my advice, I did leap at the chance. Proper work was an escape.

There were so many “are you ok’s” from the “safe” people who suffered, as I have several times before, from survivors guilt along with the same pangs over the loss of our home, our family. Of course, there was also speculation about the future for those left after the restructuring. The truth is, I’m happier than I would be if I was in their shoes.

In the mornings, we talked about sleepless nights. I was only half joking when I suggested maybe we should keep a bottle of recue remedy in the office kitchens.

Reassuring each other was important. We’ll be ok. We’ll get through it, move on, maybe move up. But so was venting. There was anger, how could there not be, at some of the decisions being taken but realistically I know our management were no happier with what was happening than us. They were subdued during the redundancy process, although I could still get laughs out of my department head. It was only after the pressure of being on the other side of the table during that process was over that their feelings started to come out. I had quite a long chat with our managing partner about my future. She came to see me as soon as I’d formally accepted redundancy. I’m not sure who was reassuring who. It was good to be told they knew what they were losing. We talked about the steps I was taking, the firms I was looking at, the interviews I’d already scheduled.

There was a lot of laughter. Isn’t that always the way at a wake. Funny old stories. New jokes about our situation. Inevitably, some at the expense of the outsiders involved in the restructuring. Some of the laughter was free and genuine, some bitter, some tinged with sadness but at least it was there.

There was a stubborn determination from some of us to put our best foot forward. We wanted to go out with our heads held high. We wanted, in a more civilised fashion, to pull up our tops to a cheating ex and say “yeah. Take a good look. You’ll miss me when I’m gone but maybe you weren’t good enough for me anyway.” It’s easy to feel worthless when you’re made redundant but we weren’t going out like that. It’s not easy to get things done in that kind of atmosphere and with so much running through your mind but we had standards. A recruitment agent commended my loyalty for pushing on with my work through it all. Apparently, that’s not a normal response. I said that my clients weren’t the ones laying me off and deserved my best as usual but also that the partners were hardly gleeful about it and I don’t have it in me to do things any other way.

We talked about the clients. Those people we served for years. My mind kept returning to the thought that I’d miss them too. It may sound odd but I’ve had a lot of good times acting for my clients. They know I love working for them. They know I love the law and care about them. When the time came to tell them, my clients stunned me. I knew they were happy with me but their responses to the news were the best testament to my years at the firm I could ask for (one client immediately just said “bastards”. I couldn’t reply straight away because this was a client I’d never pictured swearing in any circumstances!). Several offered me a reference. Solicitors on the other side were stunned into silence by the news.

My secretary and I even talked about the books. All those books. What would happen to them (the law reports went to charity)? The thing which nearly undid me one day was looking at my copy of the Companies Act 2006 sitting on the floor. It sounds so silly but me and that book have history. I’ve had good times with it. When our managing partner told me I could take the specialist equipment I have for my disability, I asked if I could take my Companies Act too. She knows me well enough to know why I asked and immediately said yes. When the day came that the books which couldn’t be given away were being skipped, I dodged between people, rescuing books and jokingly heckling them about being book murderers. Nobody found it easy though.

The fact that we were restructuring didn’t bother me. It’s happened plenty of times over the life of the firm but leaving that building was harder because it’s so representative of our history. Back when I was newly qualified, I had the unenviable task of applying for first registration of a property with deeds going back to the 16th century. The Land Registry insisted on being sent all of the deeds so I had to list them (for the first time GCSE Latin had a purpose for me). Tucked in among what I called the plague deeds was an invoice from us from the 19th century. With the exception of the cost of an overnight stay in London, it looked remarkably similar to the invoices we were still sending out in 2002. That history runs deep for us.

In the final few days ex-employees and partners came in for a final look at the building. One told me her first day of work there was 57 years ago. One person said she found it easier knowing the remaining staff were moving but I found it harder and I think most people did. Knowing we would never step foot inside that building again felt a lot like leaving my grandparents’ house for the last time, knowing it would be sold. When one colleague came to say goodbye on my last day, as he stood in the door to my office, I had a flashback to being 19 when that was his office and I was working for him.

It’s easy to see job losses as nothing more than statistics. It’s easy not to see the people behind them. It’s easy to disregard the emotional impact on the redundant people and on others. It shouldn’t be. I hope I’ll have a new job soon. I’m getting interviews. Rationally speaking, I absolutely believe what I’ve been telling everyone. I think I’m better off this way than if I stayed but it is painful, not because I feel let down or unwanted but because I will miss the people. There’s a human cost in situations like ours that comes from emotional ties and it affects everyone involved, employees and clients. The media can keep their numbers. The Government can stuff its nasty rhetoric. I’m not a number. We’re not numbers. We’re people and that has messy, emotional implications. Our clients are people too. Our clients aren’t just files that can be shunted around without an impact. Despite the best efforts of the Legal Services Act, they don’t want call centres and impersonal file handlers. They want relationships with their lawyers. They want people who know them and who they can trust. They want people who care. I did. We did. I will in my next job, wherever I end up and I will never, ever call them customers.

The last words I said to my boss of 11 years, as we stood in front of my car, with him reaching for words, on my last official day? “It’s ok. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Today is tomorrow. Today I finish clearing my stuff out. Today is going to hurt. Tomorrow it’ll be ok though.

Stepping Up to the Plate: an adventure of a modern lawyer Part III

I stand alone now. Waiting and more than a little afraid. I see a creature moving towards me, more rapidly than a thing of its bulk should be able to. The air is full of the sound of it squelching towards me. It truly is a horror to behold, its features shift with dizzying speed from Howard to Straw, Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Reid, Smith, Johnson, May, Ken Clarke, Grayling. Indeed, all of them at once but my mind recoils from the sight.

“You are surplus to requirements in a civilised society” it declares. “We protect the people. We keep them safe. The state serves all fairly and punishes justly. The people know this and reject your meddling.”

Somewhere, deep inside, I scream defiance but, standing in front of the monster  I cower. I suddenly feel ashamed. What if it’s true. What if people don’t want human rights and civil liberties. What if they don’t want help when the state abuses them? What if we, the lawyers, are the meddlers and not the foul beast before me. I waver, while a bitter little voice inside whispers, “what if they get the government they deserve”.

The monster continues to boom its propaganda. It speaks of being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, tells me that prison works, that bobbies on the beat are all we need, that ASBOs will save the nation. It talks of prison overcrowding, prison boats moored off our shores and prison closures. Terrorists against whom nothing is proven, curfews, electronic tagging, CCTV, surveillance. Binge drinking, public disorder, protests, riots. The death of family values, a compensation culture, unnecessary human rights and the fairness of legal aid cuts. It rages “only we hold the solutions”.

Suddenly there is silence. I feel something build in the air around us.

Consumerism, competition, choice, commoditisation. If you accept these things, you may live.”

“But,” I hesitate and take a breath, “but I don’t believe those things benefit clients. External investment makes us beholden to third parties who care for nothing but their own dividends. We will cease to be a profession. Standards will slip if we are forced to pile them high and sell them cheap. Eventually, only six law firms will remain and they will be despised by everyone; most of all, by their own staff. They will offer temporary cuts in prices but, once they consolidate their position, they will lose the incentive to offer reasonable rates. They will, in short, charge more than people like me would ever dare to!”

Shaking with rage, mouth dry and just a little terrified I continue. “My obligations are to the court, the rule of law and to my clients.”

I hear a whooshing in my ears, fear I might faint. When I look back at the spot where the monster stood it’s gone, replaced by something no less terrifying but considerably more reassuring. Ghosts of senior judges stand before me. Not wanting my first words to be gibberish, I hold my tongue.

“You are safe,” they say as one.

“The plate?” I manage to say.

“We’re sorry. There is no plate.”

“But, but this is an adventure. It doesn’t work like that. I defeated the monster. I should get the plate. I need it.”

“There is no plate. Stop and think for a moment. You were told to step up to the plate. Finding no meaning in that directive, you came here. You came seeking the truth, not the plate.”

“But I can’t go back empty handed. I can’t accept my working life is being directed by a meaningless management mantra.”

Collectively, they sigh. “Then we’re afraid that, even though you love Justice and Ethics there is no place for you in the modern law firm.”

Stepping Up to the Plate: an adventure of a modern lawyer Part II

Setting out on my quest again, I reach a building. It has the dismal look of a factory, yet the sign says “Bodge it & Screw ‘Em Legal Services (Pies and Pasties a speciality). I enter and move, unnoticed, through room after room of people, dully intoning, “your matter has become too complex and a solicitor must now advise you. Please note that our charges will increase exponentially.” I hurry on but can’t avoid seeing that their faces are all the same, features slightly blurry, as if they were manufactured. There is no individuality and no passion on their faces or in their voices. They are automatons processing case file after case file with no interest in their outcomes. I shudder. This could be my future if I don’t step up to the plate. A future full of procedures, monotony. A future where talent and imagination are stifled in favour of form filling. A future where clients are no longer people to have conversations with but file numbers to process. My sense of urgency increases. I must succeed in my quest! I walk on and come to a brightly lit room, lined with filing cabinets, and hear a new voice.

“Where’s your stamp?” he squeaks.

I turn and see a small creature with multicoloured neon fur, “My?”

“Stamp, your stamp that says who your parents are.”

Bemused, I can’t think of a response.

“Look,” he says, pointing to his bum, “your stamp”.

Embarrassed, I look closely, past the tufts of fur, and see it. His Certified Copy stamp, with two signatures.

“Well…I don’t have one.”

“Then how do people know where you came from. You’re nobody without your stamp!”

Somehow, I just know that all of the people I’ve seen so far in this building have stamps and that all of their stamps look the same.

“I don’t have a stamp. I come from a far off land where nobody is stamped and no person is the same as the next. I came to seek a plate to rescue my people. If I step up on it, they will be saved.”

A look of fierce concentration appears on the little creature’s face. Then, “Does your plate have a stamp,” he asks with an expression bordering on sly.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t seen the plate. Nobody can describe it for me. All I know is that I must find the plate and step up to it.”
At this, he appears to lose interest and turns away to his drawers of records.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt. “I don’t suppose the plate could be filed in your cabinets?”

He snorts. “I do not misfile anything. My cabinets are perfectly ordered. You have no stamp, you couldn’t understand.” With a snippy toss of his head, he walks away.

There is nothing more for me in this place. I walk on out of the building and come out into a dark, bleak landscape. I blink. How long was I inside? As I peer out at this strange new land, I think I see a spark of light. With hope, I stare at the point where it had been. Eventually, it comes again and I start towards it, only to be stopped in my tracks by a whispering voice.

“Justice?” I ask.

“No,” comes the soft reply, “I am Ethics, her sister. Tell me, how does she fare?”

Uncomfortable, I stare out into the dark. Eventually, I say the only thing I can.

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid she is very ill.”

“I feared as much.”

Just a wraith herself, yet there is something more substantial to Ethics than her sister. I find myself asking her how this came to be.

“My future is bound up with yours and others like you. Lawyers. I feel the same shifting currents, see the same predators but they can’t come for me or for you until my sister is sufficiently weakened. She protects us, you see.”

The sad creature I had seen could barely protect herself. Glancing at her, I realise Ethics knows that. A light sparks again. Before I can take another step, Ethics’ voice grows harsher.

“Stop,” she cries, a rasping, ragged shout. “You mustn’t.”

“But if there are people, they may know where the plate I seek can be found.”

“No longer people,” she looks on the lights with pity, “no longer.”

“Then who…”

“They sought the plate before you. When they came to this place they were caught by the monster of the bog, a terrible creature formed from the souls of home secretaries and justice secretaries who willingly gave them up in return for the power they sought. It is a young creature, only two decades old, but it grows ever stronger as each successive government builds on the actions of the last.”

I feel a shiver of revulsion pass through me as I think of the souls that had gone to create and sustain such a creature. I watch as another light glows and slowly dies away. Turning back to Ethics, I ask with trepidation, “how did they die?”

My question is met with silence.

“Please,” I try again.

“The monster will speak to you. It will lure you with promises of safety and security. For many that is enough. It pacifies them because they so want to believe. Remember from whence the monster came. It will be convincing. You will want to believe but you must not. Remember me. Remember Justice. Perhaps you can do it.”

Then, she is gone.

Part III

Stepping Up to the Plate: an adventure of a modern lawyer Part I

I have my treasure map, some tea & biscuits and an enchanted black suit. Now, I’m off to find a plate I don’t know what the plate looks like. Is it Wedgwood? Royal Doulton? Denby, perhaps? Or a more modern plate sold by a TV chef to a credulous public who believe the TV chef fairy will make their store bought stir in sauces more tasty. It could even be a cracked second off a market stall. I don’t know. I only know that lawyer-kind won’t be safe until I step up to the mythical plate. Mine not to ask “why don’t you do it? You’re paid more.” I set forth on my adventure with my meagre supplies, just a special stapler, an HB pencil and the pens cadged from my secretary to defend myself, and step into a forest. All around me, sheaves of paper hang from branches. Puzzled, I look around. Paper shouldn’t grow on trees.

“No” a whispering voice says. “Every document you shred comes here to live when you no longer need its words.”

I turn slowly but nobody’s there.

“Who are you”, I ask, trembling slightly.

“I am Justice” she sadly replies.

“But why can’t I see you?” I can, just barely, make out a misty figure outlined against a discarded Land Registry plan.

“I’m fading”.

She is a mere wisp on the breeze now. Lost in my thoughts, reflecting on the health of Justice I walk on into a valley.  A stream runs through the centre of the valley and I make my way towards it..”What’s that?” I wonder, peering at the water. Coins line the bottom of the stream. I hear a noise and look to see a metal creature standing a few feet away. It towers over me and I stand very still as it sniffs the air.

“Is there money in your pockets?”

“No,” I stammer.

It surges forward, grabbing me and shaking. Head cocked, it looks quizzically at me. “How can this be? You are a lawyer are you not? Your pockets should be full.”

“Please…I’m just a seeker of the plate. I must step up to it. My people need me”

“Harrumph. Be on your way then. There is no more pitiful sight to me than a lawyer with empty pockets…unless I am the one emptying them of course. Although, there is an alternative to the plate, you know. You could enter a union with me. If you work harder than you ever had before, I will take a mere 50% of coins from your pockets in future.”

“But,” I mumble, “why would I do that?”

“I can protect you,”

“From what?”

“Why from the forces of consumerism of course. Your kind will wither and die without my protection.”

“Thank you for your offer,” I politely reply, concerned lest I anger him, “but I set out to seek the plate and that is what I will do. I don’t know what will happen when I find the plate and step up to it. I know that it may involve sacrificing myself but it’s the only way to rescue my people. I am the only one who can do this, so it is foretold.”

His grin is a glittering, grisly sight to behold but he says nothing more.

I walk on and all seems peaceful. Paper rustles in the trees and tiny volumes of law reports flutter over flowers reminiscent of my own doodles. What a thing! As I look more closely I see other grey spots among the trees, other doodles come to rest in this world, discarded by lawyers as unwelcome distractions from the business of the day. A bird, with a magnificent plumage sits in a tree, glaring at me.

“Who are you and what is your business here,” it rattles off from an intimidating beak.

“I am here to seek the plate and, when I find it, I must step up to it. Could you possibly assist me?”

“Assist? Nothing is free in this world, as well you know. Your kind,” it declares, “nearly hunted me to extinction, you with your quill pens and painfully long documents.”

“But we don’t now.”

“No,” it concedes, “not now, but you can hardly expect me to come to your assistance. It is the law of the jungle, my dear. Once, you were the predators and we were your prey. Now, times have changed and you are hunted. You are hunted by a predator more dangerous than you can comprehend. Not smarter, no not that. But leaner and more aggressive and with a far superior ability to blend into its environment. No. You cannot expect help from me”.

And, without another word, the Quill was gone.

Part II