The Personal Injury Lawyer – Reimagining our Labour – June 2014

The Personal Injury LawyerElaine Russell

Former MASS Scottish Region Coordinator and Partner Personal Legal Services, Irwin Mitchell Scotland LLP

Personal Injury (PI) lawyers have got a poor reputation, almost as popular as Luis Suarez at a conference of orthodontists.  So – why are we held in such low esteem?

“You always think that something like this will never happen to you, it’s always someone else.  It’s been an incredibly difficult time for me and my family;  we still have a long way to go.  The solicitor was a level head in all this turmoil, with our best interests at heart.  I’m glad that’s one side we don’t need to focus on and we can move towards a more positive future that has been made available.”

The quote is from a client who was injured in a road traffic collision and suffered catastrophic injuries.   Feedback like this from clients is the reason why I became a PI lawyer.  I did not become a PI lawyer to involve myself in Human Resource management or general managerialism – however, the realities of employment relationships in the law means that for solicitors employed in UK law firms, management sometimes has to come before being a PI lawyer.

So what has happened to the law in the last 20 years when I was full of aspirations when I was studying law?  For the PI lawyer who retired in 1994 HR, operations, resource management, deskilling and so on would have been concepts that were alien to them.

Employment within the law has been “hollowed out” in the same way as other professional areas of employment.  Does that make the PI lawyer and what they can add in terms of value to the client and society hollow as well?

The cost of labour and the fact that institutions and fixed costs recovery require legal services to be delivered at the lowest possible cost – while providing a “Rolls Royce service” of client care has contributed to an exceptionally difficult business environment.   Turnover has to be substantial (if that is achievable), staff costs need to be low and the numbers of hours worked to ensure that client delivery is of a sufficiently high standard means that the application of law is suffering in the same way as other areas of employment.

Research this week has shown that universities are training too many graduates for current vacancies.   Lawyers – unlike university lecturers – are not on zero hours contracts but is it only a matter of time?
In the period since 1979 the UK has witnessed an attack on professional employment processes.  Literature uses the term deskilling to describe this process.   However as PI lawyers we have had to multi- skill and up skill just to survive in our current environment.  PI lawyers are subject to managerial processes and we are required to explain ourselves, our processes and our existence as a result of increased managerialism in a way that we didn’t have to 25 years ago.  Think about a PI lawyer who retired in 1994, could they navigate their way around being a PI lawyer in 2014?  For those of us who practiced in 1994 we have had to adapt and flex or sink in that hollowed out vessel.

The big question for me and for our profession is how can we reimagine our role not just as solicitors operating within legislation and models that have devalued the PI lawyer but in terms of our relationship with the public?  How do we get a new role?  How can we make sure our clients don’t suffer through lack of access to justice and continue to have excellent representation?

There is surely a happy medium here.  It is a fact that PI law has been attacked in terms of its integrity and the pressures that have been exerted on our profession.  I am proud to say that I and the members of MASS represent injured people.  I make no excuses for being a PI lawyer and I want to use my imagination and create a profession that I can tell my children is a good place to be – a career path for the future that has integrity.

I wrote on my application form for my law degree – “I want to make a difference”.  Clichéd – yes, honorable – who knows?  I still want to make a difference and as PI lawyers we need to redefine our roles in order to ensure that we continue to use our imaginations and make that difference surely?

“You have enabled me to plan for my future with much greater confidence than would have been the case otherwise.”

This is a quote from a client who was injured in a road traffic accident and it’s one that resonates with me when I look to the future of our profession and what we need to create.