Keep calm and love a lawyer

What it means to be a professional

Elisabeth DaviesKeep calm and love a lawyer

This was the slide that grabbed everyone’s attention at the start of Professor Richard Moorhead’s excellent inaugural lecture last week at UCL.  In questioning the precariousness of the profession, Richard was making it clear that he is not suggesting that generally lawyers are bad; many are good and some excellent. But there is work to do for lawyers, regulators and law schools.

All week I’ve been thinking about ‘what does it mean to be a professional?’  What is the thing that Richard is worried might be precarious?

Another way of viewing this question from a Consumer Panel perspective is does the status of professionals really matter to those who use the services?

In legal services we are seeing a fusion between the different branches of the profession; market liberalisation is seeing different branches working together within new structures.  We are moving to a system whereby anyone who can demonstrate their competence to practice should be permitted to provide legal services to consumers under appropriate supervision.  Professional titles will start to lose their meaning for consumers – a diverse range of providers, not just the traditional branches of the profession, will be authorised to do the same work.

These changes are not about diluting but about accepting that services are being delivered by an increasingly diverse range of providers.  When consumers engage with a business they should legitimately expect to receive good quality work, at a fair price, and to be protected from those who are careless or seek to exploit them.

In this context couldn’t the label of professional justifiably be applied to anyone who pursues certain activities, normally involving specialised knowledge or skill?  A much wider range of careers now include elements, such as ongoing training and ethical codes, which were traditionally the preserve of the professions.

It is up to the professions to find new ways to differentiate themselves in ways that consumers find valuable but the reality may well be that consumers aren’t interested in this differentiation going forward – they’re interested in the quality of what they get, the price they pay and access to protection if something goes wrong, and not necessarily whoprovides it.  The future focus could be on competence to perform the function, not the title.

The standardisation and commoditisation of many professional activities is a consequence of competitive forces and reflects the fact that certainly some aspects of work do not require expertise. This is a good thing for consumers as it should mean the work can be delivered more efficiently and cheaply, while it should also allow professionals to focus their resources on things actually requiring their expertise.

That the professions are subject to market principles is a fact of life and there is no prospect of this changing. It has been said that there is a fundamental clash of values between professionalism and market forces – that  the focus on price threatens quality standards, or profit is undermining principle. These concerns are overstated and ignore the role of regulation to manage these and other risks. However, for the professions, there is no point hankering after a return to some golden age; instead they need to find ways of redefining and/or reasserting professional values in the modern world.  Or as Richard puts it, professionalism is precarious but it’s also adaptable.