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Stuart Thomson Stuart Thomson Head of Public Affairs
16 September 2016

Lawyers must lobby over Brexit

This article was first published in The Times Brief, 16 September 2016.

There is no doubt that the Brexit referendum result shocked everyone – regardless of how they voted.

Ahead of polling day, law firms ran around setting up specialist desks to help clients understand what would happen. Many have now gone very quiet and appear to believe that they will step back in once a Brexit deal has been reached.

But clients do not want firms simply looking to make fast fees out of the uncertainty that now prevails. Instead, firms need to listen to their clients and provide the type of support they require to help them manage the risk that is endemic as the UK decides its position, starts negotiating and strikes a deal.

Risk management around Brexit is about the politics of the situation, not just the law. To simply wait increases the risk and could do clients real damage, whatever sector they operate in. Brexit is as much about politics as it is the law, which might come as a shock to some firms.

To grasp that reality, law firms must shake off the shackles of tradition and think beyond the narrow confines of the law. US law firms have long worked alongside political specialists in delivering the best outcomes for clients. But in the UK, there are only a few examples of firms that think in that progressive way.

Mixing lobbying and the law is exactly what is required during the Brexit process. Effective engagement with government is not just about knowing what the law is and how it could change, but also a mix of communications, reputation management and understanding the political system and its pressures.

The main decisions around Brexit will be political; the negotiations will be headed by politicians. A deal will need to be agreed to by other politicians around Europe. These same politicians all need to be re-elected.

The idea that the scope for lobbying on Brexit issues is limited is wrong. Businesses should also not rely solely on trade associations. Individual businesses are their own best champions.

Making a point during a referendum campaign is not the same as conveying it directly to government. The new architecture of government, with its revamped departments, is only now coming into place, as are the people who will have the responsibility for doing the deals. There is no such thing as a collective knowledge in government, just as there is no such thing as “joined-up” government.

Specialist support from public affairs consultants alongside lawyers provides firms with the opportunity to deliver what their clients need. There are nuanced and detailed arguments to be made, but with the right political audiences, at the right times.
It is this very mix of understanding and knowledge around specific sectors, combined with politics and communications, that law firms can take advantage of – but only if they are really listening.

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