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Interview: James Stewart

1 January 99

Interview with a solicitor who has chosen to practise from his home in Inverness

by Roger Mackenzie

The familiar image of the rural doctor or vet, working from home, open all hours and with all the family mucking in, tends not to be readily associated with solicitors.

Indeed for some, the condescending connotations of the quaint family solicitor would be unwelcome in an age where a tough corporate image is a marketable commodity.

Four years after establishing himself as a sole practitioner at his Inverness home, solicitor James Stewart happily embraces this idea as a refreshing change and is glad to be shorn of some of the stresses of life in a larger practice:  I was brought up in an age where to be a professional meant to put the interests of others before your own.  Nowadays, when I speak to schools and I ask youngsters what it means to be a professional, I never hear this definition.

“Running your own firm, it’s possible to define your philosophy and set your own agenda.”

The self-deprecating 52 year-old is conscious that in expounding such views he might come across almost as an evangelical crusader for a moral code of practice.

In fact, some enticement is necessary to persuade him to talk about himself and the bold move to set up shop in his own home.

“The step I took was enormous, but I received a tremendous amount of support from colleagues and not forgetting my wife Christine.  As a small practice it’s important to do a bit of everything, though it is very much chamber practice orientated.”

Having enjoyed a wide variety of working locations, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Perth, he finds it difficult to pinpoint many concerns particular to outlying areas of the country.

Nevertheless it would be misleading to portray James Stewart’s practice in Inverness as an idyllic retreat from the kind of stresses which afflict the majority of the profession.

“The pressures and stresses of life generally are as acute up here as anywhere.  The expectation of the public is really quite remarkable.

“In practical terms, during your five-day week, it is very difficult to do the ordinary legal work.  Usually I’m attending to so many sundry matters, with the telephone and fax constantly ringing, that it becomes hard to find the time to consider legal problems.

“The only real thinking time I get is in the early morning, nights and at weekends.  I’m trying yet again to build a writing day into my schedule, as a kind of counsel of perfection but Inverness being what it is, we tend to get farmers and crofters coming from perhaps Skye or Thurso on a particular day and you have to tailor your time to them.

“My aim for 1999 is to be in control of time, rather than the other way round.  I’m concerned that one can become exhausted and wearied with problems, that’s why it’s very important to try not to see people at weekends.

“Perhaps it’s my age or the responsibilities of running the establishment myself, but that feeling of weariness has got worse.”

He admits that while internal conflicts can taint the working life of partners in a large practice, the role of each partner is more clearly defined.

“Here I’m perceived as a man of business, to be consulted on a variety of matters, not necessarily legal at all.

“People still put their affairs in my hands and trust me implicitly and I can still get a great thrill from that.  There remains the opportunity in this part of the world where one can help people in a variety of situations.

“As a sole practitioner I often see clients the majority of whom are known to me as a family, therefore I’m getting an overall view of the family which can be very important especially in succession matters.

“There is a certain type of client who likes a one-to-one relationship with their solicitor and who like to know they won’t be passed onto anyone else.

“In that respect this practice is fairly unique.  The staff and clients know each other well and it becomes almost like an extended family.

“This makes for a close working relationship, which I enjoy, but it does produce a certain stress.”

As a small practitioner, he isn’t unduly fearful, however, about the prospect of large Glasgow or Edinburgh firms swallowing up the market.  He agrees there persists some notion whereby northern clients prefer to opt for well known, prestigious firms in the central belt: “Big is in vogue and I am concerned we get down to just a few massive bodies and organisations.  A lot of work does go down south from Inverness.  On the agricultural side, those dealing with large sporting or shooting estates have always generally had a Glasgow or Edinburgh solicitor.  But I’m seeing a lot of business coming back to the Highlands from the big cities.”

With specialist accreditation in crofting law and, if his renewal is granted, agricultural law, he finds his expertise in demand for firms who use him in a role almost of a counsel.

“Having a specialism does attract business from organisations and bigger legal firms.  Often the client will remain with the other firm, but I will give my opinion and do some of the work.”

James Stewart suggests that so far, at least, Inverness has escaped the squeezing of conveyancing fees that have damaged other firms.

“Inverness is reckoned to be the fastest expanding town in Europe and the squeezing has come to some extent.

“When estate agents are charging their own proper fee and then getting solicitors to work for a reduced remuneration, it is a concern when the estate agent introduces an Inverness client to a solicitor in, say, the central belt, whom he/she never meets, it can’t be good for the profession.

“When this is happening we’re not serving the public well in Inverness or any other area.  Service often seems to have come down to what it will cost with no other aspects forming part of the wider consideration at all.”

Meanwhile, the fears expressed by rural solicitors over fixed fees are shared by James Stewart.  Although he won’t be affected personally, he does wonder “where it will stop”, fearing the consequences “could be quite drastic”.

In this climate, James Stewart feels a degree of sympathy for the invidious position in which the Law Society of Scotland finds itself.  There is no hint of sycophancy when he states: “In a consumer type society it is an uphill struggle for the Society to get over to the public exactly what the profession do.

“But it’s important to emphasise how vital the concept of independent legal representation is.  It’s a process of educating the public.  The difficulty is as solicitors we’re often dealing with intangibles.  The solicitor has to make the client aware of what is involved so that they understand the degree of specialism involved.”

James Stewart has further concerns about the image of the profession in general: “We’re not regarded particularly highly, but the bulk of clients are relatively satisfied.

“Problems arise when one is lumped in with earnings figures for certain advocates or London law firms and that then becomes people’s perceptions of what you are making.”

He believes that providing a good service should lead to success and he is passionate when stating “a quality of life and an enjoyment of one’s work is what matters most.”

While he has strong views on the image of the profession, he is adamant that working from home needn’t be detrimental to the professional image of his own firm.

“I suppose it depends on the kind of business.  I would require an office if I was doing totally commercial work - clients would expect it.

“But the home atmosphere here blends in well with the type of clients we have.  People hopefully find it non-threatening.  Coming to a solicitor can be an intimidating experience if they aren’t used to it.

“Most clients who come here now know me well or have heard about me through word of mouth.

“But when people are coming in troubled times, it can often ease their anxieties to come into more informal surroundings.”

To that extent James sometimes casts aside the sternness of the suit, preferring more casual attire.  He is also meticulous about seating arrangements, and as a rule doesn’t allow an imposing desk to create a barrier between himself and clients.

He admits that a central office location might be necessary where business is court based and reliant upon chance customers from the Street.

However, he maintains “with a degree of specialism people will be prepared to travel a distance to see you”.

So what advice would he proffer to those thinking of taking the plunge and going it alone?

“For a sole practitioner, the Society is exceedingly helpful.  Indeed I would recommend anyone with a professional practice problem to consult the Society.  They are more supportive and more enlightened than perhaps they were in the past.

“Without a partner to consult for instant advice, the Society provides a vital outlet.”

Having recently taken on 30 year-old Andrew Murchison as an assistant, James Stewart is excited by the prospects for 1999.

“Obviously we’re all watching closely what is going to happen in the Scottish Parliament.  The buzzword is land reform and it will be challenging to all in the profession to see what impact that makes in terms of conveyancing, crofting or agriculture generally.

“Clients who own large tracts of land are watching things closely and indeed a number of my clients have responded directly to Government consultation papers.

“Of course up here there is some scepticism that Edinburgh might merely become the new London, but with good access by road and rail there is really no reason to fear remoteness.”

Whether one views James Stewart’s homely practice as a throwback to a bygone era or an enlightened example for the future, his growing batch of satisfied clients is testimony that, sometimes at least, it pays to put the person before the pound.

Roger Mackenzie is a journalist and law graduate