Mandatory pro bono is not the answer. Rewarding and praising highly qualified lawyers might just be.
I can probably imagine the reaction of Gazette readers and twitter users to today’s ResPublica report. I certainly wouldn’t recommend younger viewers checking the responses pre-watershed.
The idea of mandatory pro bono and lawyers swearing an oath to uphold the common good are nothing new.
But crucially they are starting to get more traction. ResPublica is a respected and independent thinktank, and you can bet there will be more than one civil servant in Whitehall reading its report on a crisis in the professions with interest. They may even pass it under the nose of Michael Gove, who has declared himself open to ideas for wealthy lawyers to give back to the legal profession that has supported their rise to the top.
There probably is a problem in public confidence in the legal profession, but I’m not sure these are the solutions to fix it.
My theory is the public is more demanding, better connected and less willing to trust authority figures than ever before. Doctor friends tell me patients will question their diagnosis because they have read better on the internet. We live in an age where tennis players can question umpire’s calls, where Question Time audiences are openly hostile to politicians and where even Royalty can be door-stepped by journalists.
The deference of a generation ago has gone, and lawyers are bound to be less trusted by a public which seems to have lost trust in so many authority figures.
Pro bono work is a laudable and impressive gesture on the part of the legal profession. I’m quite sure journalists, who so often feed the negative image of lawyers, don’t offer their services for free. Neither, for that matter, do think tank authors I would imagine.
But forcing someone to work for free undermines the point of it in the first place. I hardly think a sullen City lawyer dragged against his or her will to work pro bono is going to restore the public image of the legal profession.
Neither do I agree with the idea of an oath, which seems to have done little to prevent 458 doctors being struck off in the space of five years prior to 2014.
The legal profession is in a fundamentally impossible position. It must have the same duty to the common good as teachers and doctors but, to actually carry out that duty in practice, must turn enough profit to stay in business.
Law is a vocation that must somehow be paid for. It is naïve of the ResPublica report to dismiss some lawyers as self-serving. Without money coming in, they cannot serve anybody, least of all themselves.
What can be done to improve the reputation of lawyers? How about government ministers not promulgating the myth of fat cat legal aid lawyers? How about establishing a legislative framework and fee structure that rewards the high levels of professionalism in the sector? How about creating a regulatory system that makes life simple for practitioners and allows them to get on with their jobs?
The crisis in confidence can be addressed from within the profession to an extent. Advertising legal services should be more restrained, bad apples should be flushed out quicker and yes, rich lawyers can and should contribute more of their time and money to the cause.
But the biggest change should come from the top: a government that respects and promotes our legal system. That’s really the only way the public can learn to love lawyers.