Sunday, 26 February 2012

Catherine Wheatley

Enjoyed looking back down the years with Sunday Times journalist Catherine Wheatley this week (although we almost got vertigo). Catherine and I used to work regularly on stories on the SME sector, when she was small business correspondent at Andrew Neil's Sunday Business (later The Business). Our paths diverged for a number of years when she went freelance, but we hooked up again recently to talk about her new regular SME column for the Sunday Times. There are few journalists who understand the SME sector as well as she does (Jonathan Moules, Richard Tyler, James Hurley, Kate Bassett, you are all at the top of my list too!) And it was a joy exploring hot topics, burning issues and fresh angles on old chestnuts together.

I was particularly intrigued to hear of an extra-curricular project she is involved in, transferring the knowledge she has acquired from a long career in business journalism into the international development arena.

"Earlier this year I worked on developing a media strategy for a Girls' Education Programme run by the Department of International Development in Ghana.  The project looked at how the government could use local media - including community radio and Ghana's fast-growing mobile phone network - to get more kids into better-quality education for longer. Poor teacher attendance is a big problem in rural schools.  So one idea we recommended was to equip PTA heads with mobile phones so they could take an attendance register of teachers and text the result back to the Dept of Education!"   

She has also been advising Oxfam on private sector advocacy projects.   "As you know, Oxfam has had great success with its collaboration with M&S (donate your unwanted M&S clothes to Oxfam for a £5 voucher).  But the charity is now also looking at how big businesses can improve working conditions in parts of their supply chain in the developing world, (ie garment manufacture, food supply etc). Today more consumers are interested in the provenance of what they buy and will shop with an ethical agenda.  Oxfam thinks this represents an opportunity to align the interests of business and the world's poor.   For some in the international community big business represents the enemy.  So it is forward-looking of Oxfam to recognise they can be strong allies too."

If you're interested in these projects, watch out for information on Oxfam's website.  Check out Catherine's page in the business section of the Sunday Times too.

Prize for the flimsiest legal defence this week has to go to Dominique Strauss-Kahn's lawyers. I don't know whether the problem was too much imagination or too little, whether they are just severely out of touch with how ordinary people conduct themselves, or whether they were simply scraping the bottom of a very empty barrel, but trying to argue Strauss-Kahn couldn't have known the girls at that sex party were prostitutes because they were naked...? Puh-lease!

I'll never read a war report the same way again thanks to some of the reports surrounding the death of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin. Just over a year ago she had given an address at a service at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street to commemorate war reporters who had died in the line of duty in recent years. If you didn't get a chance to read the address in this week's papers I'd urge you to take a look here. It's stirring stuff and gives an insight into what drives these individuals to take on such a dangerous line of work - "a hard calling" as Ms Colvin put it.

Here's a snippet:  "Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you....But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling."

Marie Colvin, and all the war reporters who have gone before you, RIP.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Steven Ross

Fascinating working with Steven Ross on his Manchester United racism case this week. A litigation partner at Brecher, he is advising the owners of Red Issue, a fanzine run by Man United supporters, on the high profile seizure of 1600 copies. The copies were seized by Greater Manchester Police just before the big match on Saturday (11th Feb) because of that cartoon - a Ku Klux Klan image and the words "Suarez is innocent!"  Red Issue is clear the cartoon is satirical and deliberately anti-racist, but the police are attempting to justify the seizure on the grounds it's an incitement to racial hatred, raising interesting issues about where the line is between "satire" and "offence". Steven writes eloquently about this in The Times this week, so if you're interested to look into the topic further, you can read more here.

A point that particularly impressed me about Steven's case though, is how he won this prestigious, high profile pro bono job in the first place. He tells me:

"Manchester United put out a plea on Twitter at the weekend for legal assistance:

Being a fan (so a follower on Twitter) as well as a litigator I spotted the request as soon as it was made and tweeted back right away. Within hours, I was given the role as their legal representation on the matter." 

Always interested in stories of lawyers winning work through social media channels, I quizzed him about it a bit more.

"It's not the first time I've won work via Twitter," he says, "and I'm not the only one at the firm either." Steven's joint Managing Partner is the famous and irrepressible legal tweeter and blogger Nicky Richmond aka @saysitstraight, much loved in both the legal twitter- and blogo-spheres for telling it how it is - indeed sometimes saying the unsayable - and generally bringing some much needed humour to the proceedings. Nicky herself has won work on Twitter - nice, fat profitable work as well.

"One of the things I've learned from this week's experience" Steven says "is that because you can choose your 'community' on Twitter [via who you follow and who you entice to follow you] according to your own areas of interest, both professional and personal, when you do get opportunities to win business they really hit the spot! I am very excited to be playing my part in the outing of racism in football. This furore is one of a number that is confronting the issue and helping deal with it. And of course I feel very privileged lending a hand to help my very own Man United."

So I present this to you as evidence to share with any of your colleagues and peers who still maintain that Twitter is an inappropriate or irrelevant forum for lawyers to win business.

The news story that shocked me most this week was the dreadful revelation by The Times that dying patients with learning difficulties are routinely discriminated against in our hospitals - to the point of being more likely to have "do not resuscitate" orders imposed on them without the knowledge of their families. The revelation came in the form of a report by Mencap, which believes the issue is underpinned by assumptions by some healthcare professionals that people with a learning disability are not worth treating. 

Having worked with RJW's employment team over the last years exploring how individuals with mental health issues are often discriminated against in the workplace, I have become very aware how difficult life is for people in this situation. But this story, I have to say, shocked me to my core. 

What was your favourite BAFTA moment? For me it's a close run between two. First, that wonderful "Cinderella" moment when Meryl Streep lost her glass slipper (actually a very elegant black stilletto) on the steps up to the main stage to collect her Best Actress award for her role as Margaret Thatcher in "Iron Lady" - and Colin Firth swiftly assuming the role of Prince Charming, even going down on one knee to replace the shoe gently on to her foot.  But was this an orchestrated PR stunt do we think? Certainly did neither's existing reputations any harm...

Second, was Jean Dujardin's utterly endearing acceptance speech for his Best Actor win as George Valentin in this year's silent movie smash "The Artist". Loved his final line: 

"In the words of Buster Keaton...[silence]

If you caught it first time around on Sunday, enjoy it one more time here.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Matt Byrne

Matt Byrne is an exceptionally busy man these days. Since The Lawyer's redesign at the start of the year and its brave decision to put all its news online, devoting the weekly hard copy edition to news analysis and features, it's no surprise that the job of features editor just got bigger.  Much bigger.

"It's a lot of work, but great fun!" says Matt. This is an exciting time at The Lawyer.  Our relaunch was all about grasping the nettle and facing up to just how radically news consumption has changed / is changing.  As Cat said at the time of the redesign, we now compete with news services that send updates direct to lawyers' phones.  We had to have a fundamental  re-think about how we distribute our material.  Online is clearly best for news - and our Lawyer News Daily email makes it accessible and immediate via people's  phones.  And the hard copy print still wins every time when it comes to that more in-depth, analytical read."

So now Matt has four opinion slots a week to play with, plus a new column called The Lawyer Business, which profiles a non-lawyer law firm manager each week discussing how they approach their role - a CEO, COO or FD for example - plus of course the old stalwarts such as the ever-popular Work-Life Quiz.  And he has plans for more feature columns, yet to be revealed.

Of all the legal journalists I know, Matt is among the handful with truly impressive pedigrees.   He started life as a reporter at Legal Business way back in the 1990s and moved to The Lawyer eight years ago.  At one point he was stationed in New York, reporting for The Lawyer on legal market trends that side of the pond.  Since taking on the role as features editor, his creative flair has come to the fore - witness all his new ideas now his pages have expanded.  This man of course was a professional musician in a former life, in fact once had a recording contract - and has been known to sup beer with the likes of U2's Bono and The Edge.  He can still regularly be seen on the London pub and club circuit, top gigging venues such as the Boogaloothe Dublin Castlethe Jazz Cafethe Garage, etc - and just very occasionally he and the band can be spied at a lawyer party.  I was lucky enough to see The Truemen play at Matrix Chambers 10th anniversary bash at Fabric a year or so ago for example.

I have to say that if anyone should have the role of being in charge of my in-depth regular read, there's no one better, nor more qualified for the role, than this man!

Amazing how Harry Redknapp has gone from villain to hero overnight.  Only a short time ago he was vilified in the press for alleged tax evasion, now he is being heralded as our best option for England Manager.  The ability of certain sections of the press to turn a person's reputation on a sixpence never ceases to amaze...  

What I've found even more interesting in this story though is the debate about England players expressing their preferences for their next manager on Twitter. Among others, former Manchester United and Ireland captain Roy Keane has spoken out, saying 'player power' may be counter-productive in the search for a new manager.  The players obviously have massive followings on Twitter given their celebrity status.  Does the posting of their views on Fabio Capello's replacement unbalance the debate?  A new twist in the story of the power of Twitter, for sure.

So, do any lawyer colleagues still need convincing about the power of Twitter?  Do some still maintain Twitter is an inappropriate of irrelevant medium for the conservative business of law? You might like to point out to them this week's big news - that the Supreme Court, no less, has started tweeting.  

There was one slight glitch apparently: initially the Twitter feed stated the Court would not be accepting Freedom Of Information requests via Twitter, but within just a few tweets the Court had to change its position as experts pointed out this contravened official guidelines from the Information Commissioner.

Curious to know what they've been tweeting?  Take a look @UKSupremeCourt.  And take this opportunity to encourage some of your Luddite colleagues to sign up and follow!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Neil Kinsella

Neil Kinsella has often wondered if he made the right career choice. For the rest of us watching him over the last 10 years transform Russell Jones & Walker into a multi-award winning firm in his role as Chief Executive, there is absolutely no doubt that he did. And this week never more so, as he announced plans to merge with the world's first listed law firm Slater & Gordon. But Neil's alternative choice was to be legal adviser to the iconic Factory Records founder, the late Tony Wilson. Ever since he turned down Tony's personal invitation to take on the role, he has always wondered what could have been....

I dropped by to see Neil on Tuesday evening. The man was exhausted after two days of solid press interviews. Everyone wants to know more about the merger. I asked him to talk to me about something we wouldn't read from the press. A more personal take on the story...

"I tell you what I feel really passionate about: why is it that personal injury lawyers have lost so much respect? There's something really wrong here. I remember the days working with Rodger Pannone on the Manchester air disaster and we were seen as heroes, campaigning for justice for the little men and women being fobbed off and sidelined by big suits in a corporate monolith that didn't want to accept any responsibility for what they'd done wrong and how many lives they'd ruined. And we weren't the only heroes around. Where are the Michael Napier's of today?"  [He is referring to Michael Napier CBE QC, founder of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and famous for his legal campaigns to help the victims of the Zeebrugge disaster, also victims of the Thalidomide tragedy, widely recognised as one of the worst medical disasters of modern times. 

"Today, personal injury lawyers are seen as not much better than robbers," he continues. A fantastic spin job by the insurance industry. Of course there have been some dreadful cases of fraud and exploitation, but we don't celebrate the heroes in this field anymore - and that's wrong.  I honestly believe there's space to promote a firm of campaigning lawyers to the market and re-ignite the faith of consumers.

I also feel very strongly that when it comes to legal services reform and ABSs that the legal profession should be bold, and grasp the opportunity.  Why are we standing aside and letting the retail brands swoop in to take the space? Consumers want something different, that's clear. But it's really important for the profession that there is a proper, independent law firm brand to provide this, not just the retail brands. The legal profession should be standing up and saying "We can do this." Hopefully RJW now is.

Well, Neil may continue to dream wistfuly about the dazzling, exotic career he could have had as a music lawyer. But to me, he's always been super cool.

We love Lawyers On Demand's ad campaign in Legal Week  - "Be free: to practise law on your own terms." Billed as "a Berwin Leighton Paisner innovation", (they have won numerous awards for the concept including a prestigious FT Innovative Lawyers Award), LOD offers an alternative way for top lawyers to work freelance without having to dumb down the level at which they operate - in turn, offering clients a more flexible legal resource with lower overheads.

The "Practise law on your own terms" ads dominate the pages of the magazine with their stand-out colours and strong imagery.  They leap off the page enticing lawyers to re-think the way they work, with arresting open-ended phrases and questions such as  "I wish I was free to  "  "I can choose to  "   "I would be happier if I  "

How would you fill in the blanks?

Had to keep schtum about a fantastic stunt at Netlaw Media's new Partners Club this week, a networking event for senior lawyers and law firm managers. 7 Bedford Row Chief Exec Fay Gillott gave the opening speech and she told me mid-week there surprise in store for guests, but I was sworn to secrecy until after the event.

Champagne was handed out on arrival, with a pouch attached to each glass containing a fake diamond and details of a prize draw.  And the prize? A real diamond! Well that set everyone in the room a-quiver.

The only catch was that you had to be in the room when the winner was drawn at 8.30pm or you wouldn't qualify for the prize and the draw would be done again.  Bet that made sure no-one left early! Smart marketing - if a little extravagant!