I was recently involved in a Twitter discussion about something or other when another Twitter user suggested I should acquaint myself with the facts. And then linked me to a story in the Daily Mail. There were some facts in the article to which I was referred. They were deeply hidden amongst the tittle tattle, the perversions of the truth, the views of people presented as a fact and the downright untruths.
This, sadly, illustrates an ill of modern society. When people decry our “post truth” era, when people complain about the EU referendum and the misleading approach by both sides, it is not really the fault of the politicians. It is the fault of some sectors of the media.
Nothing makes you realise this more than an article about something close to home. Like this piece in the Mail today. I started to read with trepidation when the headline said “Lawyers raked in £32.2bn in just ONE year”. The use of the word “raked” told me bad things were coming. It is remarkable that when, for example, there is an increase in jobs in the car industry it is never announced by adding up the incomes of the new employees and then announcing that car workers are “raking” in the total, including the tax they pay. And NI.
Then the line that set the tone of the piece – “despite strikes over their pay levels the legal profession has been booming”. This told me the tone was going to be “misleading” or, as some would have it, “total bollocks”. It may, of course, just have been a sloppy phrase when they used the words “the legal profession”. I mean, I know it was just the criminal lawyers who went on strike. I know that my commercial, civil, planning, admiralty, tax, professional negligence and intellectual property colleagues did not go on strike. It was, probably, just an error to suggest that the whole legal profession had been on strike despite the fact that they were, and still are, “raking it in”.
But then again maybe it was not just a slip of the pen. For the very next line is “lawyers earn almost 24 per cent more than the £26.0 billion they earned in 2011.” This was good news. I raced instantly to my iPad and my online banking. I must take this up with my chambers as it appears that I have missed out on the 24 per cent pay rise.
The article continues in this merry dance of juxtaposition of fact and fiction. The factual substance of the piece is that figures show “that last year lawyers across Britain achieved a turnover of £32.2 billion – almost 24 per cent more than the £26 billion they earned in 2011”.
Let us just, as David Brent might say, unpack that fact for you. Note the word “turnover” but then the use of the words “they earned”. The £32bn is turnover not earnings. Yet this article is written in a way that could make you believe that £32bn is going straight into the pockets of lawyers instead of being used to create jobs for receptionists, typists, admin staff, cleaners etc. And also being used to pay professional fees like accountants and experts. And going back to the Treasury in the form of taxation or the local council in business rates.
Having set the tone earlier with the action being taken by lawyers receiving public funds and then gross turn over figure of the entire legal sector the piece goes on to say that there are 171,198 people working in the legal profession and compares this to the 126,618 police officers or the 153,720 military personnel.
Now these comparisons are totally meaningless. How about comparing it to the numbers of plumbers? Or accountants? Or shop workers? Or brain surgeons? Or magicians? The only point in the comparison is to say “look at how many lawyers there are when the police and the army have been cut?” The not very subtle underlying statement is that for every lawyer that steals a living, there is one fewer police officer available.
What the article has not said up to this point is that the £32bn is money paid to law firms and lawyers by everyone. From the person in the street who wants a will to the oil oligarchs who wants to settle their disputes in the courts of this country. Only £1.6bn is from Legal Aid. The vast majority of it comes from private money. I bet you had no idea that the money you spent on your house conveyance prevented a police officer hitting the beat? You didn’t? Well, that’s because it doesn’t.
It then dedicates a whole paragraph to how legal Chiefs complain that financial pressures means recruiting becomes a struggle but then proclaims that the number of solicitors has risen by 47 per cent and the numbers of barristers by 32 per cent. Yet again the article misses out a distinction between the struggle to recruit into areas such as crime and family, areas that are vital to the functioning of society and are underfunded, and the growth in other areas (also important to the rule of law) but paid for by the private sector.
We then have a whole chunk dedicated to strikes in response to legal aid cuts “which were accused of impoverishing criminal lawyers” (the not so subtle subtext being they said that, when in fact they were raking it in….) and a rehash of the Mulberry handbag ad hominem. These three paragraphs contain no explanation that legal aid rates have been cut, that public funded lawyers are paid a fraction of the rates of their privately paid counterparts and that the growth has been driven by other areas of the legal profession.
In fact this chunk of the piece is sandwiched between the total growth of all lawyers and the view of Dr David Green “no win, no fee agreements” have undermined the ethos of the legal profession, concluding that the “legal profession has lost its way morally”. I do not know whether Dr Green intended to damn the entire legal profession in this way but I can assure him, the Daily Mail and their readers that I have never conducted the prosecution of a serious offence in the Crown Court under a no win no fee agreement….
I have never undertaken a single “no win, no fee” case. Many lawyers have not. Many other lawyers will have done and still maintained the highest of ethical standards. What the article wants you to do is to see all lawyers as avaricious leeches who “rake in” billions whilst complaining their fees are going down.
There are quotes from the Law Society and the Bar Council. But they do not repair the damaging tone of this article. The deliberately damaging tone of an article which is light on exploration and explanation but heavy on adding two and two together to get 32bn. Nowhere does it explain that lawyers are involved in non contentious work in drafting etc. Nowhere does it explore that a growth in the sector is actually involved in attracting business to this country. Nowhere does it explain how many areas have been removed from legal aid.
How do I know it is misleading? Because I have read the comments below the article. It is the 2nd of January. I already need a stiff drink.
I did a little research into the figures quoted by the Mail. It would appear that the journalist concerned has done no more than take the figures quoted in the article from a footnote to an LSB press release which you can find here. It is the fifth footnote. If the journalist had done a little more digging then they would have gone to the source material from the Office of National Statistics. I did. And when I looked at the datasets I discovered that for the first three quarters of 2016 the turnover in the legal sector is DOWN 2.4%. But of course that does not fit in with the narrative. Or maybe the journalist just did not look beyond the footnote to a press release.
Another statistic that does not fit the story is that in 2011 when the legal sector’s turnover was £26bn the Legal Aid spend was £2.1 bn. So public spending has gone down when the overall turnover has gone up. And whereas it used to represent (very roughly) 1/12th of the market spend it now accounts for 1/20th of the market spend.
Finally the article compares the turnover to the MOD’s budget of £27bn. Which is both misleading in making that comparison and the figure. The MOD’s budget is £34.4 bn.