Who cares about lawyers' lives? The project shedding a light on the personal side of the profession

Expat Solicitors 1b-Article-201705081032

Who are these lawyers? You can tell it’s an old photograph by the fact that they are all white men – the profession has changed since it was taken (you can also tell it’s old by the suits).

They are the partners from the London firms in Hong Kong in 1981 – Denton Hall, Stephenson Harwood, Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Norton Rose, Clifford Chance, McKennas and Simmons & Simmons.

What happened to them? Three of them became senior partners, at least one is dead and one became Lord Mayor of London. One of them, the tall chap on the right whose face is partly obscured, is writing this article.

Who cares about lawyers’ lives? Well, National Life Stories (NLS), for one. It wants to create a permanent historical record of what lawyers did then and what they do now; how the practice of law has changed within living memory.

NLS is based at the British Library and is a world leader in oral history. Through in-depth biographical audio interviews, its interviewers record individual reflections of a wide range of people. Its work is a resource for historians now and in the future, because it covers all aspects of its subjects’ lives, not just their careers, and reveals the broader social history context that traditional written sources simply miss.

Its recent work includes interviews with authors, scientists, artists, architects and the electricity industry. Twenty-five years ago the NLS embarked on an ambitious project to chart ‘City Lives’, and during a 10-year period carried out 150 interviews. It is now working to update that project to cover the years of the crash and a decade of austerity. All the projects become part of the British Library’s sound archive as a record for posterity, but more importantly, as an online resource for research and inspiration.

This growing body of unique personal insights – some 3,000 recordings – would not be complete without a record of the legal profession. NLS has scoped a thoroughgoing survey of the profession, indicating that a ‘Legal Lives’ programme will involve about 100 interviews, in all branches of the law, up and down the country.

The problem is money. ‘Legal Lives’ is proving difficult to fund because the profession is broadly based. The Law Society is supportive, but cannot help with finance. The sums involved are not large. If 100 firms and sets of chambers each gave £3,000, the project would be fully funded over its four-year term. Everyone that funds the project will be publicly acknowledged. NLS is about to write to the major legal firms for support.

There are two significant hurdles to clear. First, the project will have no immediate commercial benefit to any individual or firm – NLS cannot guarantee that any of the funders will be automatically picked as subjects, as it has to ensure a wide and representative spread. Second, most firms have established criteria for charitable giving, often involving benefit to the community, and this project is unlikely to meet those criteria.

But this is a really important project for the permanent benefit of the profession as a whole. It will shed light on a body of men and women who are still quite unknown to the general public. It will show not only what lawyers do and how, but why they do it: where lawyers come from, what they want, how they live and who they truly are. It will inspire the young lawyers of tomorrow.

And if the lawyers will not fund this, it is hard to know who will. It seems quite wrong to miss out the legal profession from the nation’s archives when so many other sectors are represented, and particularly when the cost per firm is relatively small.

Francis Bacon said that he held every man a debtor to his profession. NLS is about to find out whether his words hold true today. If Legal Week will let us, we will let you know how we get on.

Bill Knight is a former senior partner of Simmons & Simmons, a former chairman of the Financial Reporting Review Panel, and a trustee of National Life Stories.