A lot of people think that training at a South West firm must be a little, well... insular. Stuck down in Devon, with perhaps the chance to venture up as far as Bristol if you're lucky. This is certainly not true of my experience, with regular trips to London throughout my training contract, but a few weeks back I got the chance for a more European perspective with a trip across the Channel.
My destination was Strasbourg, to attend the General Congress of the European Bars Federation (the FBE) at the European Court of Human Rights. The FBE is a group of 250 member bars from cities across Europe, bringing together lawyers from across the EU to discuss the challenges affecting the profession and to share information and expertise. The Devon and Somerset Law Society is a member and, when they offered the chance for a junior lawyer to attend, I was delighted to get the chance to go.
The theme of the congress (unsurprisingly given the venue) was human rights. We heard from some intimidatingly accomplished people, including several former presidents of the ECHR and current judges of the court. A whole range of issues were discussed, including the right to legal representation while detained at a police station (Salduz), the role of the lawyer in ensuring a fair trial and considerations for lawyers when dealing with the media.
So, all very interesting you might say, but not especially relevant to life at a commercial firm? Before I went, I was chatting to someone who asked about the topic of the congress. When I said human rights, the response was raised eyebrows and a sarcastic 'hmmm.... well that will be useful for your future career at Michelmores....' I admit I could see their point, but on thinking over my (so far very short) legal career, I can already see how human rights have influenced so many areas of law, including that practiced at a commercial firm like this.
For instance, a key ECHR case discussed at the congress was Michaud, concerning a challenge by a French lawyer to anti-money laundering legislation. His argument is that the obligation to report suspicions of money laundering is incompatible with the principles of protecting lawyer-client relations and respect for professional confidentiality. This issue is of particular concern to corporate and property lawyers.
My last seat was employment, an area where human rights has a massive impact, from discrimination claims to issues over employee privacy. The latter is particularly topical given a recent ECHR decision on whether employers should be able to monitor employees' communications at work (Barbulescu).
In my current seat (clinical negligence), several of our claims involve inquests into deaths in hospital. Verdicts given at such inquests are usually 'narrative' verdicts, allowing the coroner to examine the wider issues around the circumstances of the death, not just the immediate cause. Such inquests only came about because of the Human Rights Act and the right to life.
It is not just in discreet areas that human rights have an impact. There was lots of debate at the congress about client confidentiality and legal professional privilege, with concerns that this is being threatened with lawyers' offices being searched and phones tapped. This impacts on all lawyers, whatever their practice area.
The congress was a great reminder that the legal profession is hugely important for protecting rights and freedoms. The final day's session (which I could not attend) involved discussion of a project to send lawyers to Lesbos to advise Syrian refugees. I'm told that this involved an impassioned speech in support of the initiative by Michele Bénichou, the president of the CCBE (The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe). He asked what the role of the lawyer is - to bring peoples’ rights to their attention and to help them enforce them. This should be the concern of all lawyers.
The congress wasn't all work, with a drinks reception with the Mayor of Strasbourg on the first evening and dinner and dancing the following night. I met some great people from all over Europe, including Warsaw, Amsterdam and Southern Italy. It was fascinating to meet lawyers from different jurisdictions and find out about the differences between systems, but also the common challenges faced. In short, a reminder that life at a regional firm doesn’t have to mean a provincial outlook.