What distinguished professionals from tradesmen was their assumption of social superiority backed up by guaranteed fee rates. Now those have gone, what's left?
Just what are the professions for?

What is it they actually profess? In an age of consumerism, is the promise they make to the public and their clients any more valuable than the guarantee on a washing machine? Indeed, in a world in which doctors murder their patients, accountants conspire with their clients to defraud the public, and lawyers (American ones) decline to sign up to a code of conduct that requires them to tell the truth, is their promise worth as much as a washing machine guarantee?

Some might say it's a bit late to ask these questions – just after standing back as the senior partner of a large practice. Those who've been in the same position know, however, that leadership is as much about intuition guided by a basic belief system as it is about analysis and introspection. And the end of that responsibility provides the occasion and the opportunity for quiet reflection, to ponder on just what it is that distinguishes the professions from others selling goods and services for a price.

This is a testing question, now that we all clearly labour together in the same supply-chain gang. Indeed it doesn't always help much to talk about "professionalism" – as the term has come to mean simply that things are done well and reliably (except in the context of a professional foul – when it apparently refers to bad behaviour that is acceptable if one's livelihood depends on it).

First, though, some thoughts on what that distinction is not about – at least to me. This involves abandoning some of our historical baggage. When Joseph Hansom launched The Builder 160 years ago, he aimed it not just at the professions, but also at contractors, suppliers and "every educated artisan in the industry". His reasons may have been entirely commercial, and as an architect and the inventor of the London cab, he already bridged both worlds. It was nonetheless a progressive view, given that the professions were designed to serve two Victorian middle class preoccupations: class and money. To be in a profession was to avoid the social indignity of being in trade; and with the creation of a privileged class came the creation of a privileged pricing structure. Although there are still some who perceive a difference of prestige between the professionals and the contractors and suppliers, this is a distinction that is at least half a century beyond its sell-by date. Professionalism is no longer about class.

Gone, too, is the protection of price – an early casualty of the attack on the professions. There may indeed have been something political, or even personal, in this. The professions were a soft target and included among their number some of the least popular and least trusted occupations in the Western world. Mostly, however, what was under attack was the barricade of restrictive practices behind which professions sought to shelter from the icy wind of competition. The wind blew anyway, of course, and whipped away some of the supports of the professionals' business model.

The protectionists argued that abolishing fee scales would force people to cut the quality of their work to a degree that would be detrimental to their clients’ interests. The irony of this argument was lost on its proponents …

The most important of these (and the least mourned by the fair-minded) was the mandatory fee scale. The protectionists argued that the consequence of abolishing fee scales would be that competitive pressure would "force" people to cut the quality of their work to a degree that would be detrimental to the interests of their clients. The irony of this argument was lost on its proponents: that those people who were so much to be trusted that they should be protected by special rules of engagement would instantly compromise the interests of their clients if money was at stake. The reality was that hordes of consultants were producing poor work, insensitive to the interests of their clients, but at fees that matched those of their very best competitors. Twenty or thirty years later, most consultants are producing better work than they did then for fees that are 20% to 30% less in real terms. The balance was made up of waste and inefficiency.

What then is left? For me, the answer lies in one of those alliterative trinities so beloved of speechwriters: value, values and validation. This begins, as it should, with the client, for the only sustainable way I know to make a living is to create value for the customer – and then keep some of it. This should be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but in the first 20 or so years of my professional life, the service was not really attuned to customer need: we were simply part of a preordained process that they were required to pay for. That has changed forever.

Values are certainly core to professionals' business, but on their own they are not an identifier of professionalism. Similarly, I don't doubt that many people enter the professions with the object of acting honestly and helping others. These are admirable qualities (I'm with the bishop whose considered view on sin was that he was "agin it") – but I am deeply suspicious of any class of people who claim that they possess them in greater measure than any other class. Even in the cynicism of a post-Enron age, integrity should be the price of admission for everyone in business; and this and a concern for others are matters of upbringing and personal choice, and not the by-product of choosing to make one's living in a particular way.