I was interested by an article in the New York Times a few days ago whose title told the whole story: ‘Brexit Is Messy. London’s Lawyers Are Cashing In’. 

Jonathan Goldsmith

Jonathan Goldsmith

The first paragraph says more or less the same thing:

‘In any divorce, lawyers are the only surefire winners, and as Britain muddles through one of the biggest, messiest and most complicated breakups in economic history, the country’s top law firms are booming.’

The rest of the article gives details to flesh out the opening premise of how large law firms are benefiting from the mass commercial need for legal help: for instance, in restructuring, intellectual property rights, employment law, and the rewriting of hundreds of thousands of contracts. The Brexit dividend has come in other ways, too: the drop in the value of the pound has made UK mergers and acquisitions more attractive, and helped towards the cost benefit calculation in favour of UK-based litigation.

We need to set this boom against the gloom of the loss of practice rights in the EU that might follow from Brexit. I say ‘might follow’ because - as we know - unexpected developments are now usual, and any future association agreement/free trade agreement/revocation of Article 50 (delete as appropriate) might still maintain the very desirable practice rights which exist for our lawyers within the EU, unlikely as all those outcomes now seem.

Most firms with offices in Europe, and most UK lawyers based there, have had nearly three years in which to Brexit-proof their practices through just the kind of measures the New York Times article mentions, so that loss of practice rights will probably substantively affect future generations of lawyers rather than current law firms or practitioners based in the EU.

Finally on the good news front, it seems as if Brexit uncertainty is not affecting US law firms in London. The gist of a recent article in the ABA Journal about how US firms are responding to Brexit shows that they are mostly sticking with London as their base, confident that their business model will survive.

So this week I am contributing to positivity in the face of so much national disputation and meltdown, even if it does turn out to be the week that we leave the EU without a deal, which would not be good news. I will relentlessly show a positive face.

Sticking with international practice, the same upside-downside of a major challenge can be found in other problems facing the sector.

Take, for instance, the rise in the number of English language – and sometimes English law – courts and arbitration centres around the world, not counting those existing in anglophone countries. For instance, there are now English language courts in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany, and English language arbitration centres in Dubai, Kazakhstan, and Rwanda. (The arbitration centre in Kazakhstan will operate on English law terms, too.)

This is obviously a sign of the success of our law and language, and although the first may not be down to us (take a bow, USA), the second is a tribute, among others, to the world class status of our profession, together of course with the English Bar and our courts.

Is this global rise a threat or an opportunity? Just as with Brexit, it is both. It is clearly not good if there is competition for venues to settle commercial disputes in English, or under English law, but the growing competition implies, and helps to sustain, the dominance of our jurisdiction and its developments. I trust our profession will stay ahead, as before.

The third challenge is the surge in new technology affecting solicitors. It touches on our international practice in several ways, one of them being through the old model of office opening abroad. Legal services offered through English law firms based locally are undermined by digital means of provision which do not require anyone or anything to move across a physical border. This erodes the very structure of the World Trade Organisation’s methods for advancing free trade in services, which are based on people or services actually crossing borders. 

We may not be able to do anything about the WTO’s structural complexities, but we can prepare ourselves in other ways. And here the government, the profession and the courts have shown themselves willing to face the future. I shall give examples of one of the initiatives of each group as follows: the government – the LawTech Delivery Panel; the Law Society - Technology and the Law Policy Commission and the courts – the various speeches of Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court, which show that there is high awareness of the problems that need to be tackled.

Next week’s Brexit shenanigans may show whether positivity is justified, but this week I am giving it a go.