We speak to newly-elected deputy vice president of the Law Society, Joe Egan, about his 20 years’ experience as a solicitor-advocate, and how he intends to support advocates when in office
Joe Egan is a specialist in criminal law, and owns two legal practices in Bolton. In April, he was elected deputy vice president of the Law Society. He achieved higher rights of audience in 1995. Here, he shares his thoughts on the current challenges and pressures faced by solicitor-advocates, how advocates can prepare for the future, and how he intends to support advocates when in office.
What made you decide to become a solicitor-advocate?
I set up my own firm in 1986. There were two reasons why I decided to apply for higher rights when the opportunity arose. First, it was a career move, because I had naturally reached the point where I couldn’t really advance much further in the magistrates’ court, so the thought of playing on a bigger stage was appealing.
Second, I wanted more control over my cases. I discovered that many barristers would drop out at the last minute to be replaced by someone else, often with much less experience, which obviously was unfair to the client. Having the ability to undertake Crown Court work meant that I could pick up these cases myself.
What are the main challenges facing solicitor-advocates in 2015?
Undoubtedly, the main threat is the low level of fees. I actually don’t practice anymore as a solicitor-advocate - effectively I was squeezed out. In my very last appearance in the Crown Court, I spent about 20 hours preparing for trial, but because the judge persuaded the prosecutor to drop the case, I ended up with only £90 in my pocket! It’s ludicrous that remuneration is so poor, even for someone of my experience and length of qualification.
The second challenge will be when tendering comes in, because it’s likely that a small number of the larger firms will dominate the market and take the lion’s share of the advocacy work. If the smaller firms do get some work, it will be very poorly remunerated, and the only way to make the tenders work will be to cut fees/salaries.
I have a lot of sympathy for the junior bar - some members are struggling too because a lot of the work has been taken away, and the money they are making is considerably less than it was a few years ago. But the reality is, if you’re good, and can build yourself a decent reputation, you’re always going to get work.
How do you plan to support solicitor-advocates when in office?
We have to keep up the political pressure on the government to make it clear that the rule of law is vital for a civilised society, and that having properly remunerated lawyers is crucial in maintaining the rule of law and access to justice. It seemed to come very late in the general election campaign, but the publicity emphasising the damage the legal aid cuts have done has finally come to the fore.
Through the likes of the Advocacy Section, it’s crucial that the training is there for solicitor-advocates, and that the Law Society gives them the same support the junior bar receives. I was the first solicitor-advocate at Bolton Crown Court. Appearing by myself, I felt quite isolated and envied the bar’s common room ethos, where they all supported each other. We need to better harness the skills and knowledge of very senior solicitor-advocates, who now have 10-15 years’ experience under their belts, and start distilling their expertise down to new people coming through into the profession.
The rise in civil court fees will obviously have an impact on the number of claims issued, and thus the amount of advocacy the solicitor-advocate will be required to carry out. Do you have any advice on how they can survive and thrive in this new regime?
There has always been a need for solicitors and advocates. That will not change, but we need to address two questions: how can we improve access to lawyers, and how can we deliver services in a cheaper and more efficient way? The answer to the first question is, primarily, by making it cheaper. Even though the vast majority of high street firms will have some sort of mechanism that allows them to speak to clients for free and gives them some idea of whether the firm can help them or not, the costs remain phenomenal.
How can solicitor-advocates prepare for the future?
Starting a firm from scratch, I have had to fight for every piece of work. You cannot afford to be complacent. One of the things I teach the youngsters at my firm is that if you look after your clients, and they know you are going the extra mile for them, they can always recommend you. If you work hard to build yourself a following and a reputation that you give better client care and are properly prepared in court, you’ll get work.