Sic transit gloria mundi

By | 14th December 2009

Latin phrases used to be an important part of a lawyer’s armoury, if only to confuse those without a classical education into believing that a mundane set of words must be important because of the solemnity with which they were intoned. Doubtless this also justified instructing a lawyer and a fee as the ordinary person could not be expected to act for himself (and in those days it almost invariably was a male) if they could not understand the language used.

I have an affectionate memory of learning Latin although too often my reports complained that “he could do better at Latin sentences if he learned the vocabulary and the conjugations”. I am in favour of it being taught, not least because it is one of the foundations of our own language today. However, nowadays the use of Latin in the law is dying out and a good thing too! Plain English is what we need so that everyone can understand what is being said and written.

Why a Latin heading then? I have to admit that the phrase came swirling into my mind recently, not because I was reflecting on the process of papal elections but because I was forced to reflect on how quickly things are changing in the world around us. Incidentally, there used to be a ceremony as part of the process of installing a new pope called “sic transit gloria mundi”. According to Wikipedia:

The phrase played a part in the ritual of papal coronation ceremonies until 1963. As the newly chosen pope proceeded from the sacristy of St. Peter’s Basilica in his sedia gestatoria, the procession stopped three times. On each occasion a papal master of ceremonies would fall to his knees before the pope, holding a silver or brass reed bearing a piece of smoldering tow. For three times in succession, as the cloth burned away, he would say in a loud and mournful voice, “Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi!” (“Holy Father, so passes worldly glory!”)  These words, thus addressed to the pope, served as a reminder of the transitory nature of life and earthly honours. The stafflike instrument used in the aforementioned ceremony is known as a “sic transit gloria mundi”, named for the master of ceremonies’ words.

Coming back to the world outside the Vatican, there has been a raft of stories recently which demonstrate how quickly things are changing for lawyers. Examples are the apparent financial crisis engulfing Dubai, Rupert Murdoch’s attack on Google for providing information free to the rest of us, imminent changes to the way litigation is to be run and the suggestion that the hourly rate for lawyers, for so long the one constant in the law firm firmament, may be on the way out.

Dubai’s problems have provided the most column inches over the past few weeks and it did not take long before law firms reacted by cutting staff in the region. Who would have thought that would have happened even a few weeks ago when the oil revenues were flowing in and the rich and famous were queuing up to buy real estate in the sun? Actually, and I take no pleasure in saying this, who did not think it would happen at some stage when ludicrous sums of money were being spent/borrowed at very low rates of interest to build hotels and casinos on the shifting Arabian sands?

Nonetheless, DLA Piper was in the running to be the first firm to announce significant job losses in the region last week.

The speech by Rupert Murdoch recently to the Federal Trade Commission (US consumer protection body) caused something of a stir. In fact, it is likely to be more than a storm in a desert tea cup because he appears to be challenging the assumption made, I suspect, by 99% of the rest of us that Google and other search engines will always be available a few clicks away to provide information on any conceivable subject you care to choose. What’s more, it is free. Well, not if Mr Murdoch and others have their way. There is a move afoot to charge users of Google for the right to view the content of certain publications and, given that Mr Murdoch is behind such a move, we should all be alive to the possibility that it will come to pass in one form or another.

Then there are the widely trailed changes to the way we run our litigation in this country. The Jackson review of costs in civil cases is eagerly awaited this month or early next year. We are told that there will shortly be a new Technology Questionnaire and a new Practice Direction to Part 31 CPR and, as if those were not enough, there has been the important judgment in the case of Earles v Barclays Bank, where His Honour Judge Simon Brown QC used the strongest possible judicial language to make it clear to lawyers that it was “gross incompetence” for those practising in the civil courts not to know the rules and practice them. In that case, serious costs consequences followed the failure of one party to comply with the obligations imposed by the CPR.

As if all that were not enough, Altman Weil have recently published a survey 2010 Billing Rates showing that US law firms are expected to raise their billing rates in 2010.

While I understand that law firms, just like banks which have been bailed out by the taxpayer, will be seeking to rebuild their balance sheets in 2010, I find it odd to hear that they believe they can remorselessly raise their rates as if nothing had happened in the interim since 2008. I just do not believe that clients will wear the idea of an increase when they are reeling from the credit crunch, loss of markets and falling orders. What clients want is for their lawyers to respond to their concerns and to share the pain and the responsibility with them. If lawyers do not respond in this way, my view is that clients will gravitate away to those firms who appear to have got the message and are prepared to think of different ways to help their clients and different and innovative ways in which they can be recompensed for their advice.

Some support for that view comes from two sources this week and they are both in the insurance sector. Both Zurich Insurance and Prudential are reported to have made it clear to their panel firms that far from there being an increase in rates for 2010, the insurers are looking to their lawyers to restrict their rates to those prevailing in 2008. Those who agree will, I suspect, be given more work as a result because I suspect that there will be firms who say they are not prepared to work on that basis.

2010 promises to be a difficult year for many as recent certainties retreat. For those who are prepared to grasp the initiative it could well be a year of surprising promise and achievement. It does not matter whether you are an investor in the Middle East, a newspaper proprietor, an insurance lawyer or a law firm, what is clear is that standing still and expecting it all to come right in 2010 is not an option.