Respectfully Yours

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 31 August 2003

We lawyers are a respectful. Courtesy and propriety are not merely second nature, they are our very essence. While other professions, and, of course, tradespeople, conduct themselves with alarming levels of ignorance and moral desuetude, we who sup at the bar or dine in the hallowed halls of Chancery Lane never fail to do so properly, with decorum, and above all else, respectfully.

There are, sadly, always doubters, those who cavil at the success and well-being of their betters and allege that the respect shown among lawyers is, in fact, its very opposite. These people, to whom I am a recent convert, contend that respect may as well be replaced with an antonym such as contempt.  Looking at the legal lexicon on this vexed issue, they may have a point.

My Damascene conversion came after a recent foray into seldom visited waters of employment law. Evil employers were threatening to sack friends and acquaintances, who rang and asked: “Can you help? Will you be cheaper than a city lawyer?” Of course I can, said I, diplomatically sparing their feelings and avoiding the answer to the second question. But on each of what turned out to be three successive disputes in as many weeks, I encountered terrifying deployments of lawyerly respect.

The first was a straightforward case of redundancy. At least, it should have been, but the employer in question failed to seek any legal advice and accidentally fired my friend, instead of making him redundant. There are procedures in such cases, that have to be followed. None were. It was a cast-iron case of what is known in the trade as ‘constructive unfair dismissal.’ I came on the scene and helpfully pointed this out.

Strangely enough, the employer reacted angrily. He swore unfathomably and called his lawyer, who called me. “With respect,” she said, “my client rejects your client’s claim.” What this means is: “With contempt, you are an idiot. Your client hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance.”

I respectfully disagreed, and a week or so later we reached an amicable settlement. The next case was not so straightforward. An acquaintance had been sacked, and was, naturally, upset. Regrettably she had been deservedly sacked, and had barely any arguments in law upon which to call. That has never stopped any lawyer worth their salt, and I contacted the wicked employer’s in-house legal department. “This is an outrage,” I said, “my client has been disgracefully treated and will sue unless she is adequately compensated.” There was a deafening silence, and then came the words: “With the greatest of respect, have you asked your client why she was sacked?”

One doesn’t like to pry unduly, but the answer to this question shed new light on those innocent five words. It struck me that with the greatest of respect actually means: “With the greatest of contempt, I have never had to talk to anyone so stupid as you. It is a marvel that you ever passed any law exams. You are sub-human.” Still, no one likes to be sued, and a deal was duly done.

The last case was a different kettle of fish. Brandishing abstract concepts and having a commercial eye for a deal were of little use. The dastardly employer had retained flash city lawyers from the sort of firm that I used to work for, a place where respect is everything. My friend occupied the realm of a mutual termination of employment, neither having been sacked nor made redundant, and it was my task to ensure that his severance letter looked after his interests.

The deal terms were simple enough but I came unstuck on a drafting issue. I just didn’t understand the wording of sub-sub paragraph 18.9.3 (27th draft). My opponent became increasingly exasperated, before erupting mellifluously: “With the very greatest of respect, have you…?” I didn’t hear the rest of his sentence. Sub-sub paragraph 18.9.3 was clear, so, too, my inadequacy. It was the ‘very’ that did it: with the very greatest of respect meant, quite simply: “You are a joke.”

He may have been right, but we got there in the end. Back in my natural habitat, the libel jungle, it is a relief to know that my stature is just about upright. At least, I think it is, because it’s been a long, long time since I was treated with respect, great, small or otherwise.