Which award-winning firms genuinely deserve their gongs?

If you want to be the best, dedication’s what you need. Photo: Shutterstock

 

In the finest traditions of British journalism *cough*, we at the epilogue have always been willing to face unflinchingly the most inept, hilarious, incompetent and downright dangerous examples of legal professionals operating today.

But we are aware that for every charlatan and chancer, there are a hundred lawyers working with remarkable dedication and expertise on behalf of their clients. Or, at any rate, on behalf of their billable hours spreadsheet, and who are we to look askance on financial ambition?

The legal profession is positively awash with awards ceremonies, from honouring individual lawyers with decades-long records of achievement to giving the nod to small firms leading the way out in the sticks.

Mind you, even securing nominations for awards can bring out the worst of the bunch. When RollOnFriday sent out a survey for its Firm of the Year 2015 awards a few of the responses were fit to raise an eyebrow.

One Linklaters trainee, on being shown the hours she was likely to work, said she felt like a ‘lamb to the slaughter’. Meanwhile, Stephenson Harwood ought to be blushing no end at its reputation as (and I quote) a ‘dick measuring hotspot’, full of simian males competing to see who can ‘beat their chest the loudest’.

But here at the epilogue, we are happy to seek out the heroes and the heroines, the humble grafters and the leading lights. So in the spirit of a glorious springtime, with hope and optimism in our hearts and daffodils dancing in the breeze (All right Wordsworth, steady on – Ed.), here’s some of the best the legal profession has had to offer in the past 12 months.

Saving the planet one brief at a time

It’s easy to feel a little hopeless when it comes to eco-affairs. Alarming statistics regarding the rate at which China is throwing up coal-fired power stations can make our efforts to counter the effects of global warming seem futile. But over at Slaughter and May, no such fatalism is allowed.

Winners of last year’s Law Society Excellence Award for a firm’s environmental performance, the firm has not only reached a fairly ambitious energy reduction target of 40 per cent – but done so seven years ahead of schedule. For a large and influential firm to be putting environmental affairs firmly at the top of the agenda should help champion change throughout the legal landscape.

You need a holiday? You got it

Over in East Anglia a law firm is taking a distinctly modern approach to working hours.  Ashton KCJ is leading the way in a ‘paid time off’ policy which will scrap annual leave allocations, and give salaried employees the freedom to take leave whenever they like – assuming (of course) it doesn’t endanger their practice.

The move follows in the footsteps of such giants as Netflix and Virgin, and although it’s currently in a trial period may well be permanently rolled out if successful. Chief Exec Edward O’Rourke said, ‘Anyone managing a law firm in the current climate is acutely aware of the need to be more innovative than ever before, both in the way they attract and retain legal talent and in the way in which they meet clients’ legal needs.’

Could total flexitime soon be ‘normal for Norfolk’?

Distinction in diversity

The keen observer will be well aware that the legal world can’t claim to be reflective of the diverse society we’re lucky enough to live in. It’s always been difficult for students from less privileged backgrounds to enter a profession which requires a formidable pay-out in fees – not to mention tends to favour a certain kind of academic record.

An article in the Guardian estimates that around 40-50% of lawyers at City law firms are privately educated, a figure which compares to around 7% of the overall population.

How then to ensure there is truly equal access to the profession – and (most importantly) that the profession benefits from the greatest possible pool of talent? Over at Clifford Chance a ‘blind CV’ scheme is making waves.

To guard against the response likely to be generated by a CV thick with references to Harrow and Oxford, those applying under the ‘Intelligent Aid’ scheme are asked to write a 500 word essay – and details of their university background are kept anonymous.

The result? By January 2014, within months of the scheme being in place, the intake of students from universities not traditionally associated with entry into the top legal firms has tripled.

Tech and innovation triumphs

It should by now be taken for granted that law firms make use of the frankly bewildering array of legal tech available, and constantly seek to develop their practice into ways of working that can truly respond to their clients’ needs.

But it’s only too easy to be reluctant to grasp new innovations, and cling on to old working practices that have served a firm in good stead for the last few years – if not decades.

Three cheers then for firms making sure their clients are benefiting from a truly twenty-first century service.

Business law firm DWF is one of the leading lights in this respect, bagging both the ‘Law Firm Innovation’ and the ‘Best Use of Technology’ gongs at the 2014 British Legal Awards, courtesy of Legal Week mag.

It’s the firm’s innovative Crisis Response service that received most praise. The integrated service brings together legal advice, business continuity planning and reputation management to tackle crisis when it comes.

Rather beautifully, the service includes ‘psychological support’ – one imagines sweet tea and biscuits available for shaken clients whose cherished business has suddenly hit the buffers (and quite right too).

The Best Use of Technology award came after a multi-million pound IT investment and a partnership with Canon, which is believed to be a world first.

With a nod to environmental concerns, the Canon deal allows them to cut back on paper usage by routing all mail straight into the case management system.

The Good Eggs

The legal landscape has never lacked genuinely heroic characters – and the last twelve months has certainly hatched a considerable number of good eggs (that’s un oeuf puns for now).

Consider for example two winners at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group version of the Oscars, at which Andrew Elkin was recognised for 20 years’ tireless work on behalf of his late client Anne Williams, who lost her young son in the Hillsborough tragedy.

Described as being ‘like a dog with a bone’ during his campaign for justice, the judges paid tribute to ‘that rare chemistry which can happen when a dogged and determined lawyer comes together with a courageous and tenacious client – and both are determined that, however long it takes, justice must be done and a terrible wrong righted.’

Meanwhile, Matt Foot of civil liberties firm Birnberg Peirce & Partners was named Legal Aid Champion of the year. At a time when Legal Aid has been subject to the sort of ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that got Hamlet so worked up, Foot’s high-profile Justice Alliance campaign (which enlisted the support of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven) received much-deserved praise.

Faced with evidence of this kind of personal and professional excellence, not even the most jaded practitioner can remain entirely cynical. Time to stick Elbow on the stereo and crack on with changing the world! (You disgust me – Ed.) SP

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