Stephen McElhone graduation

On 15th September 2023, I’ll have been a qualified solicitor for 25 years. To give that some perspective, the most recently qualified solicitor in the BHW corporate and commercial team is only 24 years old. (It stung a bit when I found that one out…)

There’s nothing like an anniversary to put you in a reflective mood so, for what it’s worth, here are a few observations:

  • When I started as a trainee, no-one had PCs on their desks and business emails weren’t a thing. Post, DX or, for more urgent matters, the hated fax machine were the only options. Although it’s tempting to look back and say that transactions were done at a more measured pace, I’m not sure that’s true. I remember many more late night (or early morning) completions than you see now (and lots of faxes).
  • Documents were shorter back then. Without the same word processing capability, it simply wasn’t practical for most transactions to have sale and purchase agreements of the length you see today. (And they would have taken forever to fax.) There may be a lesson here. In the 90s, many colleagues were convinced that Microsoft was about to put them out of a job. In practice, word-processing resulted in longer and more complex documents, with no obvious reduction in the amount of work needed to complete a transaction. In the 2020s AI will clearly make it even easier to produce documents, but I’d be prepared to bet that in another 25 years there will still be plenty of jobs for lawyers.
  • The all-parties meeting has gone out of fashion. This is, I think, another example of the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating a trend that already existed. With pretty-much all correspondence having moved to email in the early 2000s, the idea of getting everyone around the same table had gone out of fashion long before we all got wary of being coughed on. I don’t miss it. Putting all parties in the same room, when there are substantive points still to be agreed, is about the worst way to efficiently reach agreement. Keeping the principals at arm’s length from the legal negotiations allows a decent corporate lawyer to explain things and take instructions without anyone feeling the need to showboat. This keeps the focus on the issues rather than the personalities and results in more deals completing during sensible working hours. That said, we all need to be careful that Teams/Zoom doesn’t become the 21st century equivalent of the all-parties meeting. Don’t get me wrong, the technology has its place but we do need to think about how we use it.

Although many of the tools of our trade have changed (and, thankfully, I’ve not had to use a fax machine for years), it seems to me that the fundamentals of the job have remained the same. A good job really – this old dog is still happy to learn a few new tricks, but I quite like the fact that my 25 years of experience still have some value!

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