This piece was prompted by a letter of concern which I wrote to the Association following the Grosvenor House dinner. I have been attending the dinners for many years; my first memories are of its being at the Savoy. The Association was then very small (about 250 or so members); the original aim of the dinner was to provide an opportunity for London solicitors to entertain the stipes. Even as late as the seventies, solicitors (particularly those in crime), were thought to be a little below stairs, and this was a chance to raise their profile.
Over the years, the occasion has grown in size and has changed in other ways. In recent years it has come to be known as the “touts” ball. I never quite understood who was supposed to be doing the touting, but assumed the reference was to the Bar. However, as it is the solicitors who shell out quite generously to entertain the Bar at their tables, the jibe appears misdirected. Perhaps the label is one which is in fact applied by the disappointed barristers who don’t secure an invitation.
Of course, the other big change in the last couple of years has been that stipes are now not formally entertained at Grosvenor House by the Association. Sensibly, that evening has been moved to a biannual event, in the more intimate surroundings of the Savoy. However, many judges are still invited to the dinner by members.
The dinner, like LCCSA itself, has been a runaway success over the last few years. It is a landmark in the legal calendar, a great opportunity for firms to entertain their staff, their friends and colleagues at the Bar, and some judges. It is moving towards looking more like a ball than a legal dinner. Some of us are concerned by this drift but the truth is that it is popular and well attended, and therefore seems to suit the membership.
One thing, however, is not working well and that is the conduct at the tables during the keynote speech. The letter I wrote to the Association expressed my grave concern about the treatment of speakers. I am a long-standing friend and honorary member of the Association and I feel strongly that there should never again be a situation such as occurred this year. The Association invited Sir David Calvert-Smith to give the keynote address. He graciously agreed, and as a regular attender, he would have known what a challenge it is.
Anyone agreeing to make the speech is signing up to a great deal of thought, sweat and preparation and is generously giving that time and effort to the Association and its guests. Sir David has experience of every aspect of the legal landscape. He had prepared an important and interesting “state of the nation” address which deserved our undivided and respectful attention.
As those present will know, Sir David was subjected to a barrage of drunken noise; despite efforts to quieten the tables, a good proportion of those who were present continued to talk loudly among themselves while the speaker struggled through. The whole episode was unprofessional and highly embarrassing, and, in my view, did the Association a great deal of damage.
The problem is simply drink. It is quite clear that, by the end of the dinner, many in the room are beyond the point of being able to control themselves and are certainly in no condition to listen to a thoughtful legal speech.
Although this year was the worst I have encountered, the problem is not new and I believe has been ignored for too long. I have therefore urged the Association not to ask any more senior judges or lawyers to speak after this dinner.
What are the alternatives? We know that the “Gilly Gray” type of speech – a series of wonderful jokes and stories – will work, but Gilly Grays are few and far between. A professional paid speaker would offer a similar service and would “hold” a boozy audience, but this option would move so far from the legal dinner model that it may be defeating the entire object of the exercise.
I am told that in Holland speeches are made at the beginning of a dinner before the drinking begins; this would be novel and could work. Otherwise, it may be best to abandon the keynote speech altogether, have a short morale boosting speech from the current President, and leave it at that.
The decision is one for the committee, assisted by sensible representations from the membership. I know that the committee would value responses from members to this piece to enable its members to find a way to ensure that the success of the dinner continues but to guard against any possibility of the good name of the Association being brought into disrepute as a result of boorish behaviour.
– Stephen Dawson, district judge (magistrates’ courts)
Some of the comments made in this piece are entirely true. Solicitors do look forward to attending at this event, and some do get terribly drunk. But, this years speech was bloody awful. I was present at the event mentioned in the article and my table held a sweepstake to guess the length of the DPP's speech. I thought that my estimate of 18 minutes was pretty good, but if memory serves me right the speech went on for some 27 minutes. The speech did not deserve the heckling that it received from one drunken man who decided to shout, "Disclosure!", at inappropriate moments. By the end of the speech my table had lost interest in what the DPP was saying simply because he was talking for too long, in fact my table may have been one of the tables talking too loudly!