Personal injury lawyers are great at telling themselves how worthy they are – now for the outside world.
The first thing you see at the APIL conference this year is a ‘Grab a Grand’ machine, where lawyers are encouraged to grasp in a wind-swept box against the odds for a meagre number of notes.
Honestly, dear readers, sometimes these analogies just write themselves.
Once they’d finished with the machine – and filling their bags with the sponsors’ freebies you find at this event – it was onto the main business of deciding what on earth the future holds for this sector.
There’s always a good atmosphere at the APIL conference, as personal injury lawyers emerge from domestic purgatory to surround themselves with their peers. All year long they are pilloried in the media and by politicians, but here they find empathy and understanding.
More than ever before, I’ve sensed exasperation and exhaustion at the low regard with which they’re held in the public. Many have told me they conceal their real occupation when meeting strangers, and new president John Spencer spoke of a ‘siege mentality’ that has developed.
We should make one thing absolutely clear: personal injury lawyers have nothing to be ashamed of. They are not just advocates for accident victims, but often they are (literally) hand-holders, counsellors and confidantes. They are fighting for the little man or woman against the might of corporations and national institutions, and have to do so under the strain of regulation and competition from new entrants to the market.
But while the Celtic Manor hotel acts as a comfort blanket for the chastened lawyer, it is also a bubble, where delegates are shielded from the court of public opinion.
Make no mistake, the public perception of these people has never been lower. Joe Public is put off by crass advertising, convinced that lawyers are in it for themselves and is happy to trade in legal rights for lower insurance premiums.
Everyone at the conference this year should make it their mission to turn that perception around. They must badger their local MP and besiege local media with good news stories using, if they can, real life examples of the people they have helped.
The industry as a whole needs to establish clear guidelines for advertising and marketing, with those who choose not to comply potentially losing accreditation. There is nothing wrong with trying to bring in work, but the industry must take responsibility for the harm some adverts are doing in terms of reputation.
The government’s reform agenda is reaching a point where public opinion will surely turn against any further tipping of the scales against the victim. PI lawyers have nothing to be ashamed of. And, who knows? Perhaps 2014 will be the year when the person on the street finally learns to love them again.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter