It is a cold, bleak, biting Christmas Eve in legal London. Legal aid cuts mean thousands are unable to secure the legal advice they need, fundamental human rights are being questioned by the Government and each week seems to bring news of a different corporate scandal.
Ebenezer Scrooge, partner of one of the City's largest law firms, Scrooge and Marley LLP, is not a fan of Christmas. Too many of his lawyers try to take time off, and clients expect him to send them gifts for which he cannot charge them back. Alone in his mansion the week before Christmas, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former co-senior partner, Marley, who tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits.
The Ghost of Lawyering Past shows Scrooge a vision of a legal London where legal aid was widely available, where law firms were a series of guild-like clubs, where professionalism was a sense of civic duty and contributing to the public good, and where law firms had some power over clients who saw their lawyers as trusted advisers and listened to what they said. Scrooge sees how, over time, he became more and more interested in profits per partner and in benchmarking his firm's turnover against those of his competitors.
The Ghost of Lawyering Present shows Scrooge that while almost all large law firms talk about corporate social responsibility, some appear to undertake 'public good' related activities (donating to charity, working with children etc) not because of selfless altruism, but because they think it will help their bottom line: via increased work from clients and happier, more productive employees. Some law firms also confuse charitable giving with pro bono (providing legal advice for free) and they seem to care very little about the environment, despite advising their clients on environmental regulation. Scrooge wonders if all the CSR activity by these law firms is like the twinkling of fairy lights on a Christmas tree – pretty to look at, feel-good and enchanting, but ultimately insubstantial. The Ghost of Lawyering Present also shows Scrooge how some lawyers in the largest firms have become closer and closer to their clients over time. While this means they win repeat work, and have a better sense of their clients' businesses, those lawyers also struggle to articulate what it means to be independent, despite this being one of the core professional principles by which they are bound.
The Ghost of Lawyering Yet To Come shows Scrooge a possible future where, because lawyers have forgotten what it means to be a professional, have forgotten the public service elements of their calling, and have become too close to the clients they serve, the Government has stripped them of the monopolistic hold they have over the provision of certain legal services. Scrooge sees a world in which anyone can call themselves a lawyer, those providing legal advice are regulated only by consumer services legislation, and there are more and more corporate scandals in which lawyers are said to have been overly creative with their interpretation and use of the law to help clients do whatever they want.
Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning with joy and love in his heart. He gives all his lawyers the day off (they can start billing again on Boxing Day), starts a training programme to remind his lawyers of the core ideals of professionalism and public service, says 'no' to the two clients asking him to work on dodgy deals for them, and begins a programme of pro bono that requires every lawyer in the firm to give a minimum of 50 hours of free legal advice each year to those most in need.
Some lawyers in other law firms laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some lawyers did not have their fill of laughter in the outset.
Dr Steven Vaughan is Senior Lecturer at Birmingham Law School.