As the legal revolution progresses, the danger is that the weakest and most abused clients will be pushed to the margins.
It may sound like a joke, since we live lives of such privilege and accompanying cynicism, but there really is a Day of the Endangered Lawyer, and it took place on 23 January this year.
The focus in 2015 is on the Philippines, where the story is indeed grim. Forty-one lawyers are reported to have been killed since 2001, nine of whom were involved in human rights matters. A further 57 lawyers have been threatened, harassed, intimidated, spied on or attacked in other forms, of whom 43 were directly involved in human rights. In addition, 18 judges have been murdered over the same period.
Of the known perpetrators, 65% were identified as members of the military, while 20% were from the police service. More than half of all attacks, though, have no known perpetrator.
This is the fifth such official day. It is easy when reading the material to dismiss it as a third-world problem, not relevant to English solicitors. But in Europe this month 12 lawyers were arrested in the Basque country and in Madrid for alleged terrorist crimes, and then released two days later.
On a lesser scale, we had our own government name and shame certain lawyers recently in the Al-Sweady inquiry. I know nothing about the ins and outs of these cases, but in all instances the lawyers took on issues which were awkward for their governments.
We know that in most countries there are lawyers prepared to take on unpopular matters, be it on behalf of terrorists, child killers, those abused by the government, or whatever. In some countries, ghastly consequences ensue. In the UK, it is rare for lawyers to be killed or seriously harassed – although two solicitors, Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, were killed for their professional work during the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The term ‘endangered’ need not apply just to physical danger, although that is its most obvious and abhorrent form. The possibility also arises of economic endangerment. Who is going to do such work if large conglomerates take over legal services through decisions taken in favour of consumer populism, non-lawyer ownership, competitive pricing, automated systems, online providers and all the other challenges facing law firms?
We know that we are entering a so-called paradise. Customer-friendly non-lawyers are offering low-price and easy-to-understand packages to rescue clients so mis-used by lawyers for so long.
But is LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer, EY, PWC Legal or KPMG going to go to the police station at midnight, or face abuse in parliament or the press, for taking on unpopular causes? Prophets of fashion tell us that legal services are going be revolutionised, and lawyers could disappear, with the onset of artificial intelligence, social networking, robotics, internet-based legal diagnostic tools, tele-lawyering, online dispute resolution, and virtual hearings.
A flaw in such a future has always seemed to me that there is no place for the kind of work undertaken on behalf of the weakest and most abused, even more so the most unpopular. If there were alternative business structures in the Philippines, for instance, do you think it would be their lawyers who undertook the risk of human rights cases and faced death as a result?
In a plural market, these concerns would not be so serious, since there would still be room for individually owned and run human rights firms. But what provision has been ensured by regulators and the government in this country for the survival of awkward smaller firms which undertake the kind of work others shrink from? Nearly everyone agrees that such firms are essential for democracy.
Maybe the best comparison is with animals in the wild. Not only must they be protected from being hunted towards extinction (the danger in the Philippines), but their habitat must be protected so that they can still find food and shelter, or else extinction will also result.
So the question for our government and regulators on the Day of the Endangered Lawyer and beyond is: what steps are you taking to sustain the environment for the continuation of those awkward smaller firms which are the guarantee of our way of life?
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs