Jasmine Whitbread's speech at London International Disputes Week
8 May 2019
Thanks Richard, and welcome everyone to London International Disputes Week 2019.
As it happens, this is the second time in recent weeks that I’ve been at a big event with a strong legal presence.
The first was a couple of weeks ago. Arranged by my organisation, London First, and Linklaters.
We had partners from most of our member law firms there, as part of a wider cross-sector audience.
And we were getting an insight into the Government’s future plans from William Vereker – who has the unenviable role of being the PM’s business envoy.
Brexit was on the agenda, but so too was the need to ensure we don’t forget the critical domestic issues facing our capital and country.
There was a Q&A. And pretty much everyone was getting stuck in, with questions on a second referendum, trade, the spending review, the UK’s narrative on international workers, and the big issue of the day – Huawei.
And as these world-leading lawyers and London business leaders probed on how the Government sees the UK’s future after Brexit, a thought occurred to me.
What absolute rubbish all that ‘enemies of the people’ stuff was.
I’m sure you remember it: the front page of the Daily Mail, where they gave both barrels to the three High Court judges who had ruled that the Government needed Parliament’s consent before Brexit could happen.
It was rubbish because it was inaccurate.
It was rubbish because it ignored every principle of an independent judiciary.
It was rubbish because the government didn’t stand up to the headlines.
And most of all, it was rubbish because it completely overlooked the UK’s hard-fought reputation as a top-level global legal hub.
Not for Europe or the West.
But for the world.
London: the world’s legal centre
The numbers speak for themselves.
There are almost 10,000 private practice firms in the UK. And over 200 foreign law firms with offices here.
Together, they support a total of 342,000 jobs across the legal sector.
And they help to attract a huge number of international cases. According to the latest figures, almost 80 percent of cases in the Commercial Court in 2018 were international in nature.
Our influence is seen beyond these shores too.
English Law is used in 40% of all global corporate arbitrations.
More Alternative Dispute Resolution takes place here than anywhere else in the world.
And the trade surplus run by UK-based legal services has just reached £4.4 billion. Part of an annual contribution of £26 billion from the sector to the UK economy: enough to cover the entire budget of the Department for Transport … with enough left over to completely refit and refurbish every single major hospital in London.
In other words, the UK legal sector is big.
On a scale that dwarfs our competitors in Europe or anywhere else.
At least, until recently.
The changing world of law
The UK sector is in robust health.
But the context in which we operate is changing fast.
Challenger legal centres are emerging.
Often backed by the full force of the state … and lavishly funded.
Even the competitors who we had assumed we’d left for dust are suddenly in the rear-view mirror once again.
Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt have all either announced new English-speaking courts with common law features, or have increased funding for the courts they already have.
And as one recent report noted, those courts are going for a slice of an increasingly valuable body of work. The London Commercial Courts saw 105 litigants from EU27 countries last year – a record high.
That brings us to another issue that looms over the UK legal sector.
London First has taken a pretty strong line on this.
We were one of the first groups to call on government to stop the clock, revoke Article 50 and give Parliament time to come up with a way forward that they can actually agree on. And if they can’t, they should put the decision back to the people.
But Brexit is one of those issues where things can quickly get out of hand.
The truth is that it probably won’t be an immediate death knell for the UK’s legal sector’s place in the world.
Indeed, as a Linklaters report pointed out, Brexit may in fact provide an opportunity to improve our competitiveness in some ways.
But what it will do, is risk the beginning of diminishing influence. The slow but inevitable dwindling of everything that we – that you – have worked so hard to build.
The weakening of UK prestige.
The diminution of London as an attractive place to live.
Basically, at the very point where competitors old and new are raising their game, Brexit runs the risk of looking like an unnecessary and self-inflicted cock-up.
Access to talent is a great example.
National and international law firms need to be able to get the best people. The more restrictions that are put on migration, the harder it is to do that.
And not just at the top.
Law firms also need the best event organisers, the best administrators, the best maintenance staff. People who risk falling under that absurd £30,000 bar.
We should be making it easier for the best people to come here. Not harder.
All of this means that in order to overcome the challenges facing us, the UK, and London in particular, has to be ambitious and flexible.
London leading the charge
We need to show these upstart legal centres what we’ve got.
In fact, more than that.
We need to welcome approaching changes and challenges.
And see them as a chance to innovate our way to success. Just as the UK legal sector has been doing for decades.
With dispute resolution playing a vital role …
… and with London First as a key ally.
So. What does that mean in practice?
First of all, it means recognising the strength of what you might call our ‘structural advantages’.
For the time being at least, English is still the business world’s lingua franca.
Our time zone remains advantageous.
UK Rule of Law is still a significant draw.
The Rolls Building – the world’s biggest business, property and commercial court centre, housing all the parts of the High Court dealing with commercial disputes – still gleams.
The stability and predictability of UK judgments is baked into our processes.
And our common law is so deeply embedded in so many other countries that it won’t be going anywhere for quite some time.
That’s all great.
But at the same time, we also have to be willing to lead change. Not just follow it.
We involve all our members in looking at the future of London. We bring them into debates on our public policy positions. We amplify their views in the public arena. And we have had some big wins recently, on housing, transport and education, among others.
We’re always open to more member firms. So please speak to my colleague Andreas if you want to find out how we can amplify your voice too.
In particular, we want to work with the legal profession on making Brexit as smooth as possible.
That means understanding exactly what the implications of every outcome are, and lobbying government to mitigate anything negative.
It means maximising the positives too. So if there’s a chance that London might be perceived as more neutral post-Brexit, for example when dealing with EU state-controlled parties, then we need to leverage that.
And away from Brexit: securing London’s future means sorting out access to talent.
Bringing down the salary cap to the London Living Wage, developing a new immigration regime which works for business, and at the same time making sure that all young people are able to get a route into the law, if they wish. Building the skills that matter. Collaboration, communication, attention to detail.
All those things would help London remain a centre for all types of law, including dispute resolution.
But we also need to be willing to ask ourselves questions.
To have open discussions about why the UK’s position at the top of the tree is under threat.
And that’s why events like London International Disputes Week are so vital.
They bring together the profession and policymakers. To explore the wheres, whys and hows of future dispute resolution.
Yes, celebrating where we are. But also challenging ourselves to move even further on. Ensuring that we remain the world’s gold standard for dispute resolution.