No surprises as Law Society awards is criticised by the legal profession

As mentioned in last week’s SJ about town blog, managing editor Laura Clenshaw and I were cordially invited to the Law Society’s Excellence Awards 2014 in London.

The annual event was held at the Park Plaza Hotel next to Westminster Bridge. From the Magic Circle to legal aid lawyers and everyone in between, the evening was filled with the great and the good of the legal profession.

Commenting on the event, Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: “[The] night was a celebration of the remarkable work of individual solicitors as well as the successes and innovations of practices and firms, both large and small. It was a triumph.

“Rarely do you get such a breadth of talent under one roof and it is heartening to see the continuous good work that makes our profession what it is. I am glad the Law Society, through the Excellence Awards, is able to formally recognise this good work, which usually takes place quietly, out of the spotlight and as a result of many long hours.”

One of those talented members of the profession thrust in the spotlight last week was Camilla Graham-Wood, of Birnberg Peirce & Partners, who was awarded the accolade of ‘Junior Lawyer of the Year’. The award is set to sit alongside the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year newcomer award Camilla won in June.

Camilla is one of the rising starts of the profession following a recent project for Justice Alliance in which she produced a video showing real stories from real people helped by legal aid, and featuring interviews with celebrities, Stephen Fry and Jo Brand.

Camilla told me she was delighted at having won the award and even more so that the Justice Alliance film had received widespread recognition. But she insisted that the real work starts now: “Cuts to legal aid threaten not just quality of legal advice and the ability of lawyers from all backgrounds to pursue a career in legal aid; they remove access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

“The ‘Guildford Four’, Stephen Lawrence, the Hillsborough inquest and the Gurkhas; these historic fights for justice all involve legal aid lawyers. Cuts to legal aid are not only a false economy but see victims of domestic violence being cross-examined by their abusers and they remove the ability of the individual to effectively challenge unlawful actions by the government,” she said.

Controversial sponsorship

It seems, however, that with any Law Society event, controversy is never far away.

For many, the first bone of contention concerned the event’s sponsor, Maserati. Some members of the profession, both within the Park Plaza hotel and on social media, found the association between the representative body of solicitors in England and Wales with a luxury Italian sports car to be out of sync, especially at a time when the profession is in a state of flux.

This feeling of unease was only exacerbated when one of the head honchos from Maserati climbed the stage to deliver a speech. It was the usual corporate spiel that is often heard at such events, but for some it was inappropriate, especially when mention was made as to how much the lawyers in the room could be expected to part with in order to purchase their own piece of Italian style.

The new Ghibli Maserati, which was the vehicle sponsoring the event, is available for purchase from £48,835 and not, as recently suggested in an article on Legal Cheek, £100,000. Even so the murmurings and even guffaws around the dinner hall were audible. Or, perhaps that was just the attendees from the Magic Circle firms doing some quick mental arithmetic.

In the interest of full disclosure, Laura Clenshaw and I were transported to the event in one of these vehicles as you will see in the attached photo. We were assured by the Law Society that the cars were something provided by the sponsor on its own initiative. Three cars were provided in total with the other two going to law firms and there was no cost to the Law Society itself.

I therefore have no interest in writing a ‘puff piece’ on the event, nor its sponsor, other than to say that if I had a spare £50K I would consider buying one myself. I would, however, argue that such events rely on corporate sponsorship if they are to happen at all. So why not Maserati?

Still, the sight of me lounging besides a classic Maserati, like a budget James Bond, was enough to draw the ire of one duty-solicitor, Robert Hardy-McBride, who displayed his dissatisfaction at the event by tweeting me: “Legal Aid still high on the agenda, not.”

When I explained that legal aid had been mentioned several times during the evening, especially by the winners, such as Camilla, he responded: “Whilst leaning on Maseratis, quaffing bubbly and awarding Des Hudson for stitching up the legal aid lawyers.”

Lifetime achievement

Perhaps that is where the greater controversy lies. The biggest shock of the night occurred when former Law Society chief exec, Des Hudson, was presented with the ‘President’s Award’ for lifetime achievement. Cue the inevitable Twitter explosion from both sides of the legal profession.

Pump Court barrister, Matthew Scott, tweeted: “Now that Des Hudson has won the ‘Greatest Living Solicitor’ award, will Grays Inn make him a bencher along with Churchill, Roosevelt and Grayling?”

One of Scott’s neighbours, Russell Fraser, a barrister practising from 1 Pump Court added: “Lifetime achievement award – Desmond Hudson. Beyond parody.”

While Howard Watkinson, of 9-12 Bell Yard Chambers, chimed in with: “Lifetime achievement award for Des Hudson? #lawsocawards for achieving what – best down river salesman and all round lickspittle? Joke.”

Joanne Cecil, who practises from Garden Court Chambers, simply added: “WTF!”

Meanwhile, Bill Waddington, director of Williamsons Solicitors, responded: “Someone is pulling my plonker about this. How can this happen? Absolutely stunned.”

And finally, criminal defence firm, JFH Crime, tweeted: “A final insult to legal aid lawyers from previous Law Society regime – lifetime achievement award for Des ‘no confidence’ Hudson.”

If in presenting Hudson with the award, the Law Society was attempting to divert attention away from its sponsors, or to outdo the gossip from last year’s event (I am reliably informed that a sponsor took a swing at a solicitor while on the dance floor), then they may have surpassed themselves.

On the plus side, at least we got to hear more from one of the best legal parody accounts on Twitter:Des Hudson.

A full list of winners from the Law Society Excellence Awards can be viewed here and photos from the event are here.

This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 14 October 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.