Over the past couple of weeks, the legal press has been buzzing with news of the demise of Halliwells, a large firm of solicitors based in Manchester. I was saddened to read about the firm’s fate. However I have been horrified by some of the accompanying press commentary, which includes one piece headlined Halliwells: Dangerous Ambition. Why pick over others’ setbacks and dashed hopes with such glee, as if they were fresh bones? Who does that serve?
In Halliwells’ case, it would seem that the firm’s relocation to the expensive Spinningfields development in Manchester, which attracted a substantial reverse premium, is somehow supposed to remove any sympathy for the firm’s fate. I disagree: this recession is unlike any other since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many UK firms and businesses have been “caught out” by its size and scale. Halliwells isn’t alone. Others – from corporations and small business to individuals – have suffered too.
It is the human side of the story that saddens me most of all. It is all too easy to overlook the fact that juggernaut firms, including those with juggernaut debts, are made up of people who have lives to lead outside of their busy working weeks. They have families, and they have responsibilities. The trappings of a middle-class lifestyle can include mortgages, debts, credit cards and school fees. These expenses are all perfectly serviceable and not unreasonable in the good times. But in the bad times, entire lives can come crashing down.
I once had the pleasure to represent one of the partners at Halliwells and I found the firm to be exceptionally helpful and caring towards its people. Every endeavour was made and arrangements were put into place to ensure that my client could successfully manage his domestic life with his work. I remember going to court to wait for the judgement, which related to the children, to be handed down. I sat at the front of the court and my client sat behind me, tense and waiting. As the judge read out his judgement, all became clear. We had been successful, in great measure owing to the arrangements my client had been able to make with Halliwells.
The partners in these firms reach for the stars, and the strains can be immense. I also acted for the late Richard Burns, the former senior partner of international commercial law firm Hammonds. Like all tough, successful operators, Richard had his good points and his bad points. He died tragically, far too young at 49. I remember bumping into him once on the London train: he was very busy coping with his numerous offices, while rushing home to take his children to a pop concert. He lived life hard, in the fast lane and overall I think he loved it. I respected him a great deal. Living with the strains and stresses of a big firm wasn’t a lifestyle that I envied or ever sought to emulate. However Richard, along with all the other “buccaneers” in law, had a damned good go. There are clearly good times in commercial law and when they are good, they are fantastic. But when they aren’t, the fallout is horrific.
As for me: I have always tried to run Stowe Family Law as a tight ship. I have a commercial background and I was well trained by my father. I have never sought to over-expand or take on too much at any one time. I operate in a discreet field, where that type of commercial growth and exposure to such a huge financial risk simply isn’t necessary.
Family law isn’t immune from prevailing market conditions. This year our firm has experienced some of its busiest months, but I am conscious that other family law firms have fared less well. Many of my clients have themselves been affected by the recession. Clients have told me about sleepless nights piled onto sleepless nights filled with worry. The banks have been “on their backs” and some clients have simply decided it wasn’t worth it to carry on. Others have had the plug pulled from beneath them by the banks. It does seem to me that some of these banks have been playing nasty games, lending money willingly, even recklessly and then ruthlessly calling it in, piling on the agony for those who cannot with the best will in the world, keep up the payments.
So I won’t jump on the bandwagon of bashers. Instead I would like to salute the entrepreneurial courage of those such as the partners at Halliwells. Many business leaders are under the tightest of pressures right now, trying to operate their firms, keep their staff in jobs and keep servicing the interests of their clients at a time when fee income has fallen and overheads remain high. They keep going, piling pressure on themselves, fighting on for their firms and their clients. Often their personal welfare is the last thing on their minds. Long term, who knows the damage that this recession has done to their health?
We have the wrong attitude in this country, when we berate or deride those who are filled with “dangerous” ambition and then suffer setbacks or failures. After all, there cannot be many businesses on the planet that have not been affected, directly or indirectly by the recession. Some have managed to swim; some have sunk. All those businesses are run by people: people with feelings, people with families, and people with financial responsibilities. Why kick them when they are down?