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Another age

15 February 10

President's message: It's time for the profession to embrace ABS, rather than attempt to turn back the clock

by Ian Smart

Thirty two years ago at this time, I was studying for the final exams that would eventually bring me a (very) ordinary LLB. Conveyancing (passed); Evidence (passed, just); Criminal Procedure (failed); International Private Law (passed, somehow) and another subject of which I cannot remember the title, never mind the content.

At the time none of this mattered very much. The law was, after all, only an economic superstructure on an economic base. It was a creature of capitalism and surely capitalism itself was patently on its final legs. Lawyers clearly had a role in Society: Danton was a lawyer... and Lenin... and, although he was admittedly in the jail with no immediate prospect of release, so was Mandela. Their roles however had not been to preserve the existing order but rather to overthrow it.

Antonio Gramsci, to whose writings I devoted far more time than I ever did to understanding the ius quaesitum tertio, taught that lawyers could be both traditional and organic intellectuals and therefore key catalysts in the process of change. Without the lack of confidence which only comes with experience, these individuals, and that philosophy, were the guiding models of my life.

So, a generation on (or two generations, in the case of many of my clients), why do I recall this, other than to stir the memories of those surviving members of the student Broad Left that might still be lurking somewhere out there among our membership?

Because it didn’t happen. Capitalism, for good or ill, did not collapse. Jim Callaghan, far from being the apologist for the ruling order I accused him of being at the time, actually turned out to be the last real Labour Prime Minister I’m likely to see in my lifetime. At least he didn’t participate in any illegal wars. By the time I took consolation in the vindication of my view that the claim of “no more boom or bust” had always been absurd, I was as discomfited by the effects of that bust as any other member of the professional but self employed middle class.

Life moves on. At the same time as I dreamt of revolutionary future, many of my student contemporaries had a more prosaic vision: a couple of years as an apparently unappreciated apprentice, a few more as a hard working assistant and, then, on to the promised land of a comfortable High Street partnership: a large desk, an even larger office and a personal shorthand typist.

History however bore down on all of our dreams. I’ve never myself got to stand on a barricade; equally, few of my colleagues ever got to work with a shorthand typist. But we all, nonetheless, got to be lawyers. Some ate better than others, but few of us starved.

You can’t turn back the clock. Real life is not a computer game where an appropriate save allows you to go back and try again.

The last month has seen, however, an attempt to do just that. Just as the abolition of the conveyancing scale fee did not bring about the end of civilization as we knew it, any more than did the creation of a network of law centres or the imposition of the summary criminal fixed fee, so ABS will not be the end of the world. For some, it will, indeed, be an opportunity; for the rest of us, just another factor in the market. For, much as my younger self might regret it, we are still in a market economy and, in that market economy, we have something valuable to sell. What is it? Increasingly, in the internet age, not an exclusivity of knowledge but rather an ability to harness that knowledge and to apply it, competently and articulately, on behalf of our clients.

Having already acknowledged my own inability to foresee the future, I nonetheless confidently predict that these are skills which are likely to remain in high demand. Let us therefore not spend our time dressing up self interest as principle by resisting ABS, denying commercial clients in particular the opportunity of using a business model they desire, or at least leaving that opportunity in the hands of others. Let us instead embrace the future with confidence. The world will always need lawyers.

Aux armes, citoyens.

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