TRAIN timetables are not immutable. Already, the 1997 through train has been axed. Now it is the legal gravy-train which has been hit by cuts. Departures are less frequent. Some second class coaches have been introduced on the more popular trains. The Legal Department is briefing out less and no longer paying top rates as a matter of course. Some names from the private bar have been removed from the briefing-out list altogether. Not surprisingly, this has been greeted with a chorus of protest from the most frequent first class passengers. Some barristers would prefer not to ride at all rather than having to slum it at the back of the train. But the Bar Association should not expect too much sympathy for presenting this snobbery as a principled stand. Fewer passengers mean fewer subsidised trains. The taxpayer will be ladling out less gravy. The Legal Department's recent fit of frugality can be traced directly to the public outcry following the discovery that junior barrister Graham Grant, a former Government lawyer, had been paid a total of $17.1 million for work on the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance Ltd (BMFL) case, which he had been allowed to take with him to the private bar. Naturally, not all briefing-out payments had been similarly excessive. Nor was the Legal Department always briefing-out unnecessarily. Indeed, there were perfectly sound arguments for keeping Mr Grant on the case - at a less outrageous rate. But it is a sad fact of life that when one case of unwarranted generosity at the expense of the public purse hits the headlines, others benefitting from similar arrangements also suffer. The Legal Department has, in fact, been doing what it should have done years ago. It has been taking a long, hard look at its briefing-out habits and concluded that some of them are wasteful. Many private sector businesses go through the same exercise from time to time. It is part of the normal management process. Even the best run companies occasionally find that they are short of staff or expertise in-house. Quite rationally, they choose to bring in casual staff or outside consultants to make up for the gaps. But trouble arises when this develops into a major part of running the day-to-day business: what should be exceptional becomes the norm. Then, as the bills mount, the right thing to do is to see what expertise can be supplied more cheaply by existing salaried staff - or by newly-hired staff who cost less than the outside experts - and whether consultancy fees can be cut back. The consultants will naturally say, as the Bar Association is now saying, that you get what you pay for. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. However, even monkeys are happier to get macadamia nuts, almonds and the occasional banana rather than living on a diet of common peanuts. The top lawyers should certainly be paid the top rates. But there is no value for money in paying the highest rates for mediocrity simply because that has become the way things are done. The Bar Association may have some legitimate complaints. It would be unfortunate if, in the name of economy, the Legal Department were routinely losing cases which more experienced, private counsel would have won easily. Barristers say the Department is fielding Crown counsel in both the District and the High Courts with fewer than the usual years of experience. If, as must be assumed, they are then facing less junior defence lawyers from the private bar, they are likely to be at a disadvantage. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that some counsel will be more effective after three years' experience than others after 20 years at the bar. The legal profession is riddled with restrictive and 'accepted' practices, such as only permitting a barrister of no less than five years' experience to plead in the District Court. In Hong Kong, as elsewhere, the best brains tend to gravitate to the private Bar, rather than going to the Attorney-General's chambers. Not all Government lawyers can be expected to be brilliant advocates. But if the Legal Department is confident of the quality of its counsel, there is no reason why it should follow the private Bar's restrictions. The Bar is right to argue that continued briefing-out will give the Attorney General access to levels of experience, seniority and expertise which are not necessarily available within the department. It is also right to expect top rates for top service. But it should not take it for granted that, every time a case with money-spinning potential comes the way of the Legal Department, it will automatically be briefed out to whichever private practitioner or ex-Government lawyer happens to be currently charging the highest fees.