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Comment: Last orders – The final reflections of a veteran legal pundit

I’ve always suspected that, like politics, careers in journalism largely end in failure. Here is how mine ends. After 20 years covering the legal industry, it’s time to do something else. Given that length of time, I hope my four regular readers will forgive the introspection of my final Legal Business column.

I was an accidental legal journalist, just a business reporter who ended up covering law while looking for the next sector to cover in my restless twenties. Business journalists should want to cover a sector that is large, competitive, has smart people and that Britain excels at. Law certainly ticked all those boxes, not that you’d know it from the lack of attention it gets outside its own media.

And I’ve always generally liked lawyers even if I’m not sure why. Yes, there can be the arrogance you associate with high-earning City professionals but many are surprisingly down-to-earth. Unlike bankers, they have shades to their personality, often with an insecurity and humour that drives them to perform.

If some readers liked my writing for a perceived analytical approach to the sector, I was only applying lessons learned in previous jobs trying to get my head around things like capital markets and fund management. Likewise, what success I had in building senior contacts came largely because I refused to get up on my high horse; journalists are singularly ill suited to adopt shrill, moralistic tones, though that rarely stops them. I always tried to put myself in the position of the law firm leaders, rainmakers and general counsel I was dealing with and understand them in their own terms.

Journalists rarely deal in absolute rights and wrongs when analysing an institution, individual or issue, you only ever make a case. If you’ve done your job well, you put forward a persuasive argument, setting out the relevant facts and highlighting the choices and trade-offs at hand. If you’ve done it badly, you’re just emoting with a keyboard.

After a few years covering law, by then running a sizeable news team, honestly, there were times when the legal goldfish bowl felt claustrophobically small but the fates always seemed to keep leading back here. The ambivalence didn’t last anyway. I reached a point where, having absorbed enough of the industry’s quirks, history and personality, I felt I could contribute something to the profession’s development. Well, that was the theory.

Fuel on the fire

Looking back it feels worth considering the role the press played in the law. The industry has long had an ambiguous, resentful relationship with the London legal media, in part because it was hard to control. The emergence of industry media also reflected the changes being pushed through by the City’s buccaneering legal leaders as they globalised after Big Bang. The press became more fuel to that fire, accelerating the exchange of ideas and heightening the visibility of law’s winners and losers. Efficient markets need transparency. No legal market in the world is as efficient as London.

Though I refer to the legal press, the beast has had three distinct ages. The first, during the 1990s, was defined by the recent launches of Legal Business and The Lawyer. It was a work in progress as the profession and journalists got used to rubbing shoulders in a rapidly changing sector (that decade saw more flux for the profession than the two that followed). Those titles nonetheless established themselves quickly with a profession that, while feigning detachment, plainly had an insatiable interest in itself.

Yet the established notion of the legal press is still largely the product of its second phase, which was triggered by the launch in 1999 of my former home, Legal Week. Launched as a weekly news operation focused on commercial law, in response The Lawyer pivoted towards the City and two well-drilled teams spent the following five years ripping chunks out of each other, with fierce competition for news. There were some broken eggs making that omelette, perhaps too many. Taking the editor’s job on Legal Week just before the credit crunch, I pushed the title to be more analytical and constructive.

The third age of the legal press started in earnest as the banking crisis quickened changes already gripping publishing; the legal press weaned itself off the methadone of classified ads – always a fickle friend to journalism – and shook up their business models, developing online platforms, events, data products and subscription revenues. The general tone of the press continued to become more measured. The renewed focus on subscription – the only sustainable foundation of quality journalism – was likewise welcome.

The profession’s ambivalence towards its media belied the reality that it usually got the press it deserved. Some of the media’s excesses, at least historically – insularity, sectorial myopia, a focus on status and hierarchy – were reflections of the profession. The press also picked up some virtues from its muse – it was hard-working, driven and attracted bright journalists. When it worked, it was because the journalists were engaged with the industry, building strong contacts and giving this most people-centric of people businesses a stronger sense of its own community.

I’ve worked with a string of talented reporters over the years, and competed against plenty on other titles. The last team I led at Legal Business was a daily pleasure to work with. I leave my publishing career viewing my time at LB as without doubt the work of which I am most proud.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that we are now moving into a new phase for the legal media in the wake of the upheaval of coronavirus but since I’ll have no role in shaping it, I’ll keep my forecasts to myself.

Back to the day job

Two decades parsing the legal industry leads to the question of how the profession changed. Some shifts are obvious. It’s less outwardly alcohol-fuelled than when I started. There are fewer colourful characters. Partners are less aggressive, more passive aggressive.

Some of that is just window-dressing – plenty of bad behaviour continued in more discreet form, as the #MeToo movement and its reverberations in the law made clear. The profession will at least now have more regulation to keep it honest – back in the early 2000s City firms pretty much made up the rules as they went along as watchdogs focused on High Street firms.

The industry is more woke now, far more focused on appropriate messages. Still, it is funny that the age that popularised the notion of authenticity in a corporate setting seems so often to amount to the exact opposite. I sometimes miss the honesty of the openly ruthless City firms I first encountered.

The deeper issue is whether the industry is now merely inclined to publicly wring its hands over social issues and respond with cosmetic initiatives rather than meaningful change. Such illusions of progress can waste a lot of time and squander the life chances of countless individuals before it becomes empirically clear that it just isn’t working. Gender diversity, at least, will improve – it’s been a long time coming but there has been a perceptible change in the air in the last three years, a shift that won’t be hurt by the recent appointment of the first woman to head a Magic Circle firm.

But law also became less socially mobile and diverse, reflecting wider shifts in the UK and Western societies. The profession’s record on ethnic diversity, likewise, doesn’t stand much scrutiny – that debate has only just begun but at least it’s finally begun.

The biggest structural shift in the industry in my time covering it is perhaps the rise of US law firms as a serious force in European and global markets. That led to a faltering of the London elite during the 2010s, presenting them with challenges they were culturally ill equipped to meet. Their playbooks worked well when invading smaller markets but struggled with more focused and profitable rivals on their doorstep.

If anything consigns the Magic Circle to global irrelevance it will have been the failure to make meaningful progress in the US over the last 20 years. That was a self-imposed failure, they could have done much better in the world’s largest legal market, but their partnerships repeatedly balked at the necessary steps to make the strategically inarguable a reality. Some daring US recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and a promising leadership line-up at Allen & Overy hold some hope that the corner will at last be turned. The Magic Circle finally clearing this roadblock would be a service to the profession’s enduring status as a British business success story. The Magic Circle’s pioneering spirit helped to drive the entire UK market and global law will be a duller, less imaginative place if we end up with unchallenged US hegemony.

The ebbs and flows of leadership I’ve commented on elsewhere but partnership is worth a few final thoughts. The model is forever written off, as it was earlier this year amid claims that it would be found out in a Covid-19 cash crunch. In reality, the razor focus on getting bills paid saw some large firms actually improve cash collection. This is just the latest in a long line of instances in which partnership has defied its critics. There have been a few spectacular implosions over the years – Dewey & LeBoeuf, legacy SJ Berwin and Halliwells – but most major firms have shown remarkable resilience. Partnership has its drawbacks – including fuelling pseudo-management and discouraging long-term investment – but the owner-manager structure has endured because it works. Twenty years ago it was accepted that this sector would swiftly become a business, and a profession only in name – time has shown that professional instincts instead strengthened at many institutions.

Lehman’s legacy

The banking crisis was a defining moment for the profession in so many areas and also ushered in lasting changes to clients’ buying behaviour at major plcs and banks, speeding up the trend towards in-housing work at major clients.

The crisis, of course, also ended the assumption that had held for the previous 25 years that the easiest way for a top-flight law firm to make money was to glue itself to major banking groups. Big tech has replaced big finance as the king of the global economy, courtiers to the wrong monarch find their coffers less full. For related reasons, private equity and all manner of shadow banks have become the most coveted clients for deal teams, with such outfits spitting out lucrative work with a reliability well beyond the regulated banking sector. When I first covered the law, Clifford Chance or Skadden Arps had the best claims to be the world’s most influential law firms. A decade later Linklaters or Freshfields sprang to mind. Now it is Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins, two firms heavily shaped by sponsors, that vie for the crown.

The real money with banks is now rarely in closing their deals, it is defending them from litigants or regulators… or suing them; contentious work has become far more important in Europe and Asia, a contrast to the 2000s when transactional work utterly dominated outside of the US.

The forces unleashed by the banking crisis were often claimed to be setting the stage for law’s own age of disruption. Given the advent of the 2007 Legal Services Act, that was a reasonable forecast. And yet it hasn’t quite panned out that way. Law firms have certainly become much more inclined to market their ‘innovations’, though this speaks more to corporate fashion than much evidence of increased imagination. And what is called New Law is often a remix of models involving automation, technology and low-cost centres that were around when I started covering the sector. My best guess for the lack of progress is that it has simply proved much harder to profitably automate much legal work than supposed.

Will the unimaginable disruption and cost of the coronavirus pandemic change the status quo? I’m not sure it will leave as lasting a mark on the law as the banking crisis, beyond a fundamental reset of attitudes to the office and remote working. For reasons I can’t quite fathom the fault lines of the profession feel as yet undisturbed even as global calamity piles up (and Brexit looms).

The profession can certainly endure and adapt. Despite its faults, it has an uncommon, obsessive focus on talent that puts most other industries to shame. That faith in talent, and continual striving for excellence, has served it well for hundreds of years and likely will for hundreds more.

Predicting how all this shakes out is, I suppose, a mug’s game but then I’ve had a great 20-year ride as a professional mug. Careers in journalism are not easy for reasons lawyers will easily grasp. Deadlines, pressure, insecurity – it’s a ‘rough old game’, one boss told me. I used to tell the reporters I trained that it was a love/hate job, with highs and lows but not much in the middle. Despite plenty of lows, the job gave me purpose and brought many great colleagues, contacts and friends. I still loved it at the end, perhaps more at the end. A cover feature that nails its subject and shapes its narrative with colour and imagination still feels a thing of beauty to me. Yet, there is a season to all things. I’m sticking with the profession after my journalism days, but I never wanted to keep doing this job until diminishing returns set in.

That just leaves me to say a final thank you to all those contacts and readers who were supportive over the years. Hopefully, I’ll see some of you on the flip side. Take care.

alexnovarese@btinternet.com


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About Alex Novarese

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