Why personal injury firms aren’t ambulance chasers – and why they’re in danger

Ambulance chasers or white knights?

Those on the cusp of a career in law will be forgiven for scratching their heads and staring back blankly at the mention of ‘white knights’ and the legal profession. But anyone who qualified as a solicitor in the last millennium will recall the old white knights fighting the good fight for accident victims.

Back in the days of the case of the Manchester air disaster, for instance, claimant lawyers were seen as the heroes, standing up for the little guy and campaigning for justice against the corporate monoliths. Somewhere along the way, the perceived public persona of claimant lawyers morphed into so-called ambulance chasers, but still some firms, my own included, fight on to this day in support of that mythical reputation. But like King Arthur and his knights, they might just be consigned to legend.

When you take a close look at the facts this perception is the fault of only a few firms that acted unconscionably yet tarred everyone else with the same brush. We saw a change in the public consciousness, with compensation claims becoming more visible with the government insisting that a ‘compensation culture’ had emerged. For other, mainly bureaucratic reasons around the early 2000s, the rise of American-style litigiousness and increased health and safety awareness coincided with a change in the public’s attitude to risk. Claimant lawyers largely shouldered the blame.

Parallel to this was a shakeup in the legal profession. Legal aid was cut back to the bare bones. Some claimant firms morphed into “pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap” factories, whilst Conditional Fee Arrangements (CFAs) represented opportunities to start making serious money. The old claimant lawyer ‘brand’ was itself already tainted by excessively large caseloads; delay, lack of innovation; and the litigation tactics that dominated before the Woolf reforms arrived.

On a more fundamental level, right wing governments attacked firms that were paid and supported by deeply unfashionable concepts; public funding and trade unionism. Firms failed to set themselves apart and adopt a new brand. Something had to change, but very few firms managed it.

To escape this ‘ambulance chaser’ label, it also means out-of-the-box legal thinking to deliver results for clients which push the boundaries of the law, and putting those clients at the centre of all work and thinking. To this end, we are removing the artificial boundary between our firm’s personal injury and clinical negligence departments, instead grouping teams around different serious injury types – for example ‘adult brain injury’, ‘child brain injury’ and ‘spinal injury’ to bring our work in line with the ways clients identify and experience the injury they or their loved ones have sustained.

As King Arthur and his knights appear in cinemas up and down the country, we need to ensure their equivalent in the legal profession don’t disappear from view.

Jonathan Wheeler has just been appointed managing partner at personal injury firm Bolt Burdon Kemp.