Those were the days

As the Queen celebrates her golden jubilee, Neil Rose delves into the archives and reports on the state of the legal profession in 1952 - and concludes that some of the challenges faced by lawyers today echo those of the fifties

The most startling fact to emerge about the solicitors' profession in the year of the Queen's accession to the throne was, without doubt, the high rate of bachelordom.

Figures from the census of 1951 were released the following year and showed that across the whole UK there was approximately one unmarried solicitor to every three married solicitors.

This compared unfavourably with teachers, doctors, dentists and even mechanical engineers.

At the time, there were 18,700 solicitors in England and Wales and 4,100 in Scotland and Northern Ireland; just 500 were women.

A further 3,100 were described as 'judges, stipendiary magistrates and barristers'.

'How are we to account for our profession's aversion to marriage revealed in these figures?' one practitioner wondered in The Solicitors' Journal.

'Is it that solicitors have their attention professionally directed to the marriages which fail, and so learn from their clients' mistakes?

'Or can it be that the law induces a caution which inhibits solicitors from undertaking the permanent commitment of marriage? Perhaps our profession is so hard a taskmaster that solicitors can spare neither the time nor energy to woo a mate.

'It may even be that the poor financial rewards of our profes-sion make the younger members unable to afford a spouse.'

The Treasury's blue book on national income and expenditure that year backs up the notion that solicitors' earnings were nothing out of the ordinary.

The profession's income rose 35% between 1946 and 1951, compared with 57% in salaries generally, and 72% in companies' trading profits.

But the law made a significant contribution to the economy, employing 80,300 people (compared to around 200,000 today).

Of the 42,300 men, 10,800 were described as employers (partners); by contrast just 100 of the 38,000 women in the law were employers.

Newly admitted solicitors in London could expect an annual income of around 500 and less in the provinces; according to the Office of National Statistics, the average weekly male wage in 1952 was less than 9 (468 a year).

William Allsager, former senior partner of and now a consultant at Stockport firm Alfred Newton & Co, qualified in 1952 and was paid 8 a week.

'It didn't seem all that bad but it wasn't over-generous,' he recalls.

Indeed, when Mr Allsager was made redundant in the mid-1950s, he had a spell as a taxi driver and earned twice as much.

John Franks, now a consultant at London firm William Sturges & Co, says he earned around 850 after qualifying in 1952.

Inland Revenue figures showed that nearly one-third of solicitors in partnership at the end of the 1940s had incomes of less than 1,000.

This rose to almost 40% when sole practitioners and salaried solicitors were included.

Around 30% earned between 1,000 and 2,000 a year.

The published history of Slaughter and May - even then a big name in the City - records that in 1951, the partnership had an income of 274,935, of which 132,440 was available profit for the 16 partners.

That was the City's biggest partnership - the limit of 20 imposed by the Partnership Act 1890 was still in place.

Scale fees set by statute were applied widely, and there was broad discontent with the fact that, in general, solicitors were allowed to charge only 50% more than a scale set in 1883.

Indeed, the solicitor who wrote about the census said the argument to increase this level 'would gain in strength if the Law Society could produce evidence to show that a greater proportion of solicitors could afford wives in the 1880s than now'.

But solicitors had status.

The census placed the profession in the top level of social classes when ranked by occupation.

Mr Allsager says that, as today, solicitors were viewed with a certain level of distrust, but there was also an element of awe which meant clients were not so quick to sue professionals as they are now.

But the general feeling was that solicitors were not that well paid.

An article in the Financial Times in 1952 cited a decline in conveyancing, the lack of profit in small conveyancing matters, the 'undue hardship' of the maximum payment of 9 under the Poor Prisoners Defence Act whatever the length of the trial, and the reduction to 85% of scale costs in legal aid cases.

Plus a change, many high street lawyers today may mutter, and it is hardly a surprise to learn that some of the goings-on of 1952 have a heavy resonance today, not least in the field of legal aid.

In those days, of course, there was no Legal Services Commission to blame.

The Law Society ran the legal aid scheme, created by the Legal Aid and Assistance Act 1949, and it was seen as a compliment to the profession that the government entrusted it with such a responsibility.

In 1952-53, it received 54,519 applications for legal aid and granted 35,017 of them.

Assisted persons were successful in 91% of cases.

The overall cost of the scheme was about 1.5 million (compared with more than 1.5 billion today).

In a 1952 House of Lords debate on the workings of the Act, Lord Mancroft noted that more than three-quarters of legal aid cases that reached the High Court were divorce cases, which was a major moral issue of the day.

'He thought this was lamentable,' a report recounted.

The Lord Chancellor, Baron Simonds, told Parliament that there were two issues to bear in mind, the report said: 'First the public mind clearly rejected the idea that a man should now be debarred from justice because of a lack of means.

The second was the knowledge that in mankind there was a deeply litigious spirit.

This had to be guarded against in the legal aid scheme.'

Even though it was still in its infancy, legal aid payments were already being criticised and legal aid strikes mooted.

Letters to professional journals of the day displayed the discontent, with Newcastle-based Samuel Mickler writing: 'I agree that the rewards of our profession have been sadly neglected and that the fees allowed to us in contentious and non-contentious matters are scandalous having regard to the rise in the cost of living and administrative expenses.'

Given the widespread disquiet over fees, the Law Society held a special general meeting in November 1952 to discuss it.

President Dingwell Latham Bateson announced that the Lord Chancellor had agreed to increase the scales for non-contentious business, that there was some hope on legal aid, but that there was little movement on contentious business.

Solicitors were also given the green light to make a lump-sum charge for their services rather than list specific items.

But the post-war period was bringing a lot of new work to the profession.

Despite the years of austerity - 1952 saw the end of tea rationing but a cut in cheese rations - new property developments and the construction of the welfare state provided many challenges, while the Companies Act 1948 brought a whole raft of private companies within its remit.

For example, the introduction of the National Health Service led, in 1952, to City firm Linklaters & Paines (as it then was) advising on the creation of the College of General Practitioners.

As reference to Slaughters and Linklaters shows, many of the names at the top of the pile in the City today - such as Allen & Overy, Ashurst Morris Crisp, Freshfields, Norton Rose, and the two constituent firms that made Clifford Chance - held a similar status 50 years ago.

Coward Chance had just moved into one of the first post-war buildings constructed in the City, St Swithen's House, at a rent of 1 per square foot, which was twice what it had been paying before and seen as steep.

Slaughters, with its 16 partners, was the biggest firm, followed by Allen & Overy and Theodore Goddard (13 partners each), Frere Cholmondley, which is now part of Eversheds (nine partners), Coward Chance (nine partners), Farrer & Co (eight partners) and Freshfields and Herbert Smith (seven partners each).

However, according to Mr Franks, 'City firms were not so highly thought of' at the time.

It was the law firms in Holborn which were clustered around the Inns of Court and handled the big litigation which had the reputations, such as Charles Russell and Theodore Goddard.

Most of the top firms had their senior partners on the Society's ruling council (then made up of 50 members - all men - compared to 105 today).

Also on the council in 1952 was Sir Leslie Farrer of Farrer & Co, the firm still known today as acting for the royal family.

Sir Leslie advised the Duke of York (or George VI as he became) on his brother's abdication.

The 1950s generally were a time of change for the profession as it finally moved away from what Mr Allsager describes as 'very Dickensian' practices (this was also when Latin was dropped as a compulsory subject for prospective solicitors).

He says that by the time he entered the law, 'they had just about stopped taking the senior partner's post down to his club at 6pm on a silver tray for him to sign'.

The published history of City firm Simmons & Simmons notes that 1950s senior partner Gordon Simmons kept up the tradition of opening all post that came in and signing all post that went out.

Mr Franks recalls how he worked from nine to five and was able to park his car outside the firm's offices in the West End of London.

The senior partner of Chethams (since merged into William Sturges), dressed in a black jacket and striped trousers, would arrive in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.

The published history of City law firm Vizards (since split into two separate firms bearing the name) says solicitors were noted at the time for their dreary and shabby offices, such as floors covered in lino rather than carpet.

Vizards was no different in the early 1950s.

'The walls of the reception room, where clients waited to see partners, were lined with stacks of the black tin boxes used to store clients' papers, and the furniture and decor were shabby.

'The high desks and tall stools for the clerks in the general office, which had been there since the beginning of the century, were finally removed at the end of the 1950s.'

Vizards' office had housekeepers in residence on the top floor, while the use of coal fires only ended with the Clean Air Act 1956.

Not all offices were like this.

Famed libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck, then senior partner of four-partner London firm Oswald Hickson Collier & Co, says his was a modern office, and so far as possible, there were no more than two secretaries to a room.

He even had one of the first dictation machines.

Mr Allsager recalls that documents in his office were copied using a 'wet copying machine', in which a letter would be placed in a book with a damp cloth and then squeezed down by a press in an effort to imprint the ink onto a blank sheet of paper.

This could smudge the original letter, which would then have to be retyped.

There were other tortuous copying machines, but Mr Franks adds that the photostat machine was around the corner.

He also recalls how the office's commissionaire - a Boer War sergeant - maintained that telephones were only to be used for taking messages for partners.

Bad as life was for typists though, there was one species of employee even lower down the food chain - articled clerks (trainee solicitors as were).

In those days, prospective solicitors had to face newly formed committees of practising lawyers before they could enter into articles of clerkship.

In 1952, Mr Bateson told the Society's annual conference in Eastbourne that the committee had to be satisfied 'that he or she is both in character and in suitability and fitness one who may be expected to become a worthy member of the profession'.

It was possible in 1952 to enter the profession at 16 without a degree and take five-year articles, which were not much shorter for non-law graduates.

Those with law degrees had to serve three-year articles.

Articled clerks also had to pay for the privilege of employment; Mr Allsager says his parents paid 350.

He was then unpaid for the first three years of his clerkship until he passed his intermediate exams (effectively a degree, for which he studied in the evenings), after which he was paid ten shillings a week.

He qualified by passing his finals following a six-month crammer course at Gibson & Wheldon in Guildford, which was later bought by the Society to add to the school of law it already ran at Lancaster Gate in London.

Mr Franks's parents paid 300 for his articles, which effectively covered his salary during that time: he was unpaid for the first year, paid 2 a week in the second, and received 3 a week in the third.

In the Simmons & Simmons history, former property partner Alan Fisher speaks of life as an articled clerk in the late 1950s.

'[I did] routine mass-produced conveyancing and plenty of it.

The idea was that as paid employees, we should earn our keep and qualify if we could in our spare time.

Unlike "gentlemen" articled clerks, we had no time off for law school and were not moved around the departments.

So I had no training at all in litigation, probate, trusts or company law.

I failed my finals first time around and was given unpaid leave for law school.'

Yet this was eventually to be a good time to be a young solicitor as the 1950s marked the gradual passing of the unqualified managing clerk in favour of legally qualified assistants.

This was matched by, in the City at least, a move towards specialisation and the introduction of practice area departments within firms.

Mr Carter-Ruck says he was doing pretty much every type of work: conveyancing, wills, probate, litigation, libel and copyright.

'I had to be equipped to advise on all subjects,' he says.

Mr Franks says it was a much better time to be a solicitor.

'The pressure of work was much less and you had time to think,' he explains.

'Today, with faxes, you have to have a grasshopper mind.'

Mr Carter-Ruck says that 'the environment was quite comfortable'; he had to work hard, but did not stay late and took lunch every day at a hotel across the street from his office.

Life was pretty tough at the bar, however.

This was the year that the minimum fee for a barrister, which had remained at one guinea since before 1888, was set at two guineas, but junior barristers were struggling.

An article in the Financial Times, which said there were around 2,000 practising barristers in the UK, estimated that around a dozen QCs earned more than 10,000 a year, of whom three or four were thought to pull in more than 20,000.

Between 30 and 50 juniors earned from 5,000 to 8,000, while the majority of barristers who had been in practice for at least three years earned more than 1,000.

The article described the solicitors' branch of the profession as 'blue chip' compared to the bar, but said the bar offered a higher yield to those prepared to take the risk.

In his Eastbourne speech, Mr Bateson said: 'I have for long thought that one of the evils of the present system is that nearly all the contentious business of our branch of the profession tends to be concentrated in the hands of a comparative few members of the bar.

Very many able barristers are under-worked, while the few are grossly overworked and their fees accordingly rocket.'

Mr Franks notes: 'In those days, it was said that if you wanted to succeed at the bar, you had to have money or marry a solicitor's daughter.'

Some things have changed dramatically: just 22 solicitors were disciplined in 1952, of whom 11 were struck off (three were in prison, including one for manslaughter).

But it is remarkable how many of the same topics are still live 50 years on: whether there should be a ministry of justice, a push for solicitors to make more use of advocacy skills, proposals for solicitors' chambers, whether barristers should go into partnership, and the overlap between lawyers and accountants (who did company formations was an issue of some contention).

It is fortunate for some that legal life has moved on.

While women lawyers still have some problems, the days are now long gone when, according to one newspaper report in 1952, a chairman of a meeting introduced a young woman barrister to speak and observed that members would find her talk interesting if they were not distracted by her attractive appearance.

Speaking to the University College Law Society, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Raymond Evershed, addressed the issue of women on the bench.

'He asked his audience how much women were justified in using their own special arts in advocacy,' a report said.

'This problem is only exceeded in difficulty by the problem whether, before a learned and attractive lady judge, men will be able to use their special arts in advocacy unless they take their eyes off the judge.'