The skills City solicitors develop during their legal careers makes them just as qualified as barristers to become MPs and government ministers. So why is it, asks Philip Hoult, that so few take up the challenge?
|May 30, 2001 at 08:03 PM
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Ask a member of the public to name some lawyer politicians and they would be able to come up with more than a few responses.In the current Cabinet alone, there is the prime minister Tony Blair, Home Secretary Jack Straw, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. Others include Cabinet Office minister Lord Falconer and the deputy leader of the Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn. All of them are barristers by training. But ask someone to name a politician who is a solicitor and they will probably be completely stumped.The last solicitor to make the Cabinet was Beachcroft Wansbroughs’ senior partner Lord Hunt of Wirral, who held various posts, including Secretary of State for Wales and Secretary of State for Employment under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Lord Hunt is thought to be the only solicitor to have made the Cabinet in the last 25 years.This poor showing is likely to last. In the general election the chances of many of the City solicitor candidates for Parliament are slim to say the least.Certain to get in is SJ Berwin corporate finance partner Jonathan Djanogly, who is running for the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Huntingdon. Stepping into the shoes of former prime minister John Major, Djanogly is defending a majority of more than 18,000 votes.Also well-placed is Mark Field, a former Freshfields lawyer and one of the founders of legal recruiters Kellyfield Consulting. Field is taking over from former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, who won the Cities of London & Westminster constituency last time by nearly 5,000 votes.Other candidates with a chance of succeeding include CMS Cameron McKenna solicitors Shailesh Vara and Charles Elphicke. Vara is the Conservative candidate for Northampton South, which was a Labour gain in the last election by 744 votes. It is Labour’s fifth most marginal seat.Elphicke is also running for the Conservatives, in St Albans, which was won by Labour last time by less than 5,000 votes. It is a seat that the Conservatives must win to stand any chance of toppling Tony Blair.Former Axa Insurance lawyer Steve Barclay, another Tory, also stands a good chance in the Lancaster & Wyre constituency, where Labour is defending a majority of less than 1,500 votes.On the Liberal Democrats side, ex-Landwell lawyer Richard De Ste Croix needs to overturn a 2,615 Conservative majority in Southend West.Beyond that, there seems little realistic prospect of any of the other candidates making it.Lord Hunt, who was MP for the Wirral for 21 years, is concerned that the number of solicitors putting themselves forward appears to be diminishing.“We need the brightest and best people in Parliament and we need a good supply of solicitors,” he says. “Few solicitors come into Parliament and there has been an increase in the number of professional politicians. We have to produce an environment where high flyers, be they engineers, lawyers or others, will find an opportunity to stand for election.”The relative lack of success compared to the Bar and the absence of many role model solicitor politicians is a surprise when you consider that many of the qualities and skills solicitors develop during their legal career are appropriate to politics.Lord Hunt, for one, believes that solicitors have a considerable amount to offer as MPs. “The first and most important skill that solicitors have is the ability to make good law,” Lord Hunt says. “Legislation is often far too swift and too immediate to develop into good law.” Lord Phillips of Sudbury, founder of Bates Wells & Braithwaite and a Liberal Democrat peer who failed to get into Parliament five times, agrees that solicitors are well-placed to scrutinise the tide of legislation that is being produced.“As Parliament becomes a legislative sausage machine, the role of lawyers becomes more and more important,” he says. “Parliament is pumping out political effluent.” The upshot of this, he says, is that a large amount of secondary legislation goes uncommented on or unchecked. Even primary legislation receives limited input. “Literally a handful of people in the House have really got a grip on it,” he says.Apart from their ability to scrutinise legislation, solicitors also develop a host of other skills that transfer to a political career and the business of an MP or government minister.According to Stephen Hocking, Beachcroft Wansbroughs associate and prospective parliamentary candidate for Streatham, these include a solicitor’s capacity for “dispassionate analysis and lateral thinking”.However, he admits: “Being a lawyer can occasionally be a handicap. A lawyer’s instinct is often to see both sides of an argument which does not always coincide with party politics.”The client-dealing, problem-solving skills of good solicitors also help. An ability to listen and to put across points succinctly and persuasively is useful when holding constituency surgeries.“Solicitors are also good at making decisions and for that reason make good ministers,” Lord Hunt says.He adds: “The last thing civil servants want is for a minister to say ‘I’m not sure’.”It also works both ways. SJ Berwin’s Djanogly is in no doubt that the skills of a politician translate very well to practising as a solicitor. “I have always been a better lawyer because of politics and a better politician because of my legal background,” he says. Useful political skills include leadership, which candidates develop while campaigning with volunteers. “You have to motivate through ideas and personality,” Djanogly argues.So why do so few City solicitors pursue a political career?The current state of the profession means that it is difficult, if not impossible, for City lawyers harbouring political ambitions to pursue them. The number of obstacles in their way is huge.Not least among the obstacles is the disparity in pay. An MP’s salary of £48,000 is less than the starting salary of newly qualified lawyers at the top City firms.As Lord Hunt points out, the prospect of earning a quarter of what your fellow partners are earning can be hard to stomach. In many cases, it will be even less.Lord Phillips believes that working in a City practice is incompatible with developing a political career. “It is impossible to contemplate a career if you are working in one of the huge firms,” he says. “You do not begin to have the time to map it out.“The most dependable way of making huge amounts of money is now in the law,” he adds. “There used to be other ways of making more. Now there is a different type of person entering the law.”There is also the issue of the demands a City solicitor’s practice creates. Many solicitors would find it difficult to return to full-time fee earning and re-establish their practice if, say, they only served one term in Parliament.The Bar is much better suited for would-be politicians.“The parliamentary day was practically invented for barristers,” one lobbyist comments.“They can practise at their chambers in the morning, and pop over to the House of Commons in the afternoon.”Edward Garnier QC, the shadow attorney general, is one of many barrister MPs who continue to practise.Even developing a political career before running for Parliament is difficult for solicitors. Camerons’ Vara says that work and clients have always had to come before political ambitions. Vara adds that by working weekends, he could create time for his other interest. “So long as clients’ needs are met, politics can be pursued,” he says. But with firms across the City setting ever stiffer performance targets, this is easier said than done. SJ Berwin’s Djanogly is not alone in expressing his concern at this. “A general recommendation I would make to young people starting out in law,” he says, “is that as important as chargeable hours are – and they are important – people do need to keep an appreciation of the wider world.”The problem is that this old sense of lawyers playing a role in the wider society has become deeply unfashionable in the City. This is symptomatic in the attitude towards the Law Society, which admittedly has done much in the past to bring its problems onto itself. In an age where there is huge pressure to specialise, many lawyers know little outside their own practice area let alone the wider community.At the Bar many sets of chambers appreciate the kudos of having an MP as a tenant.Law firms are unlikely to feel the same way.“I have been fortunate in having senior partners who believed life as a lawyer involved serving the community,” Lord Hunt says. “Such is the competitive nature of the profession, I do not believe there is enough support for people giving service to the community.” He says it is up to the senior partners of firms to encourage people to pursue their political ambitions. All the prospective parliamentary candidates Legal Week spoke to emphasise that to pursue a career in politics requires a positive environment in the firm they work for.Nicky Morgan, prospective parliamentary candidate for the Islington South and Finsbury constituency, says that Allen & Overy, where she is a corporate finance associate, has been supportive. “The firm encourages a life outside work,” she says. “They would be just as supportive if someone wanted to enter the Olympics.”SJ Berwin’s Djanogly is similarly grateful. “Even in the early days of my political career the firm has always been fully supportive – it is an adaptable firm.” These are exactly the kind of answers you would expect from budding politicians. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the role of solicitors in politics is set to stay where it has been for some considerable time – in the backwaters.“Most lawyers are cut off from the wider society,” Lord Phillips says. “It is a tragedy for them and a tragedy for public life.”
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