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Out of the hot seat

20 October 08

Interview with Douglas Mill, outgoing chief executive of the Society, on the rapid changes over his time in office, and why he is optimistic for the future

by Peter Nicholson

He is not one to shirk commitments, but it was the arrival of his 2008 diary that started Douglas Mill thinking that after 11 years as chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland it might be time to move on. Adding engagements, before he knew it there were 164 dates booked, “and I began to ask myself, do I want to do this any longer”.

As he goes, he can look back on a tenure that spans the millennium, and with it fundamental changes not only within the legal profession, but in the very governance of Scotland. These have added hugely to the work carried out by the Society on behalf of the profession and the Scottish public.

The first at the Society to be generally known as chief executive, rather than simply “Secretary” like his predecessors – in common with other law societies, the nature of the job was broadening from being mainly minute taking and administrative – Mill points out that our governing body has had to come to terms with a profession that has almost doubled in size since 1997, and one whose nature has “changed out of all recognition”. “It’s a very different law society, it’s more professionalised, I think it’s more outward looking and we’ve changed a number of our functions during that period as well.”

Challenging times

Asked to identify the biggest challenges he has faced in his time, Mill points first to the coming of the devolved government, which, he comments, “put us in the fairly unique situation of being the only law society in the world that has to respond to three different parliaments. That’s on a very narrow resource base”. While it was the law reform department that bore the brunt of the work in the early years, once the Legal Profession and Legal Aid Bill came on the agenda, “then it was major – that had its drama”.

The phrase “civic Scotland” has come to be in vogue over that period, and the Society takes some pride in being a leading player. Relations with government have not always been easy, however. “The legal system is something that maintained Scotland’s independent identity, but… I think the legal profession and the Society have much more to give than we were asked to give, and the stance of the political system in the early days of the devolved government was a disappointment to a lot of the profession.”

One thing the Society has been working hard at over the past decade is improving its public image. Mill believes there have been gains, but concedes there is still a long way to go. “The public have got an ambivalent attitude towards lawyers, and being a regulator means you never win popularity contests. But I think the average citizen in Scotland would be able to define the Society a bit more clearly than 10 years ago; that’s because of the Scottish political process.”

Returning to one of his recurring themes, he maintains that whether within the profession or outside it, Scots have the unfortunate trait of refusing to recognise a job well done. “Respect for the Society and for Scots law increases the further away from Edinburgh you go. I can absolutely say that…. The profession are their own worst enemies. If the profession could value what they’ve got in terms of international reputation they’d be a lot less pessimistic.”

Personal touch

It is fair to say that Mill has not shirked the commitment of going out to meet those subject to the Society’s regulation, something he regards as a personal challenge met: the Society had not previously made a point of such outreach. “I must have about 300 faculty visits under my belt. It was challenging from a standing start but it was very rewarding.” Contact with those at the coal face, he maintains, is one of the main things that kept him fresh in the job – even if his hosts did not always give him, or the office bearers who often accompanied him, an easy ride. “The more robust these meetings were, the better. I enjoyed the fact that they were always in a very good spirit, and hey, they generally came with a curry and a game of golf as well. It was a most important thing for the Society to do from 1997 onwards, to reconnect on a personal level with its members. It’s a tank that needs to be topped up every now and then.”

Alongside contact with the profession, Mill says he has taken a lot from contact with students – again something of increasing importance. “In the time I’ve been here we’ve had a doubling in the number of universities who provide law degrees in Scotland, and I think that’s partly reflected in what I see as the increasing strategic significance of education and training within the Society.”

If he leaves one legacy, however, it is probably the Donald Dewar Memorial school debating tournament, which must have given the Society more favourable coverage in local newspapers round the country than all other subjects put together. “In terms of the joy I have seen it bring, that tournament is worth millions to the Society every year.” Add to that now the Society-sponsored school chess tournament, begun this year and firmly back on the calendar for next.

Rounding up the highlights of his tenure, Mill recalls the Society’s 50th anniversary conference in 1999 with particular pride. “Thirteen hundred delegates from 25 jurisdictions in the EICC – it was the second biggest conference in the world that year. That was the individual high water mark.”

Diverse interests

Moving from the past to the future, for Mill the biggest change in the profession has been the increasing dichotomy between the high street and the big firm practice. “I was admitted in 1980. We were basically then a profession of general practitioners; we’re now a profession of specialists. One of my concerns moving forward is sustaining practice, I would say outwith Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. I think it will be really difficult to be a general practitioner of law, and yet I do sincerely believe that people in Scotland outwith the three main cities require general practitioners of law.”

He produces a diagram which shows the profession evolving over the last 20-30 years from a pyramid shape with a few large firms at the top, to three now separated segments comprising large firms, in-house lawyers and small firms. “I think that’s a major issue for the Society, being equally relevant to three areas of the profession which are moving apart like bodies in the universe. I think the Society has got to work really hard at being relevant.”

Its role is of course set to change in any event. As he has always flagged up the difficulties of regulating multi-disciplinary practices, I ask Mill if the now likely arrival of alternative business structures (ABS) is the Society’s biggest challenge yet. In fact he sees it as only one of a range of major issues over the next three or four years that are likely to face the Society, which he says is “shackled and has been playing a fairly straight bat as a section 1 organisation [with duties in relation to both the profession’s interests and the public interest], without being appreciated either by its own members who ultimately fund the organisation or by the public”.

“Remember that in 1949 when the Society was formed there was no consumer society. The Society is frustrated by its section 1 obligations to the public, when no one believes that it acts in the public interest because that’s the high moral ground claimed by the OFT, the Consumer Council, and MSPs.” And while the public see the Society as a solicitors’ trade union, solicitors have their faculties and bar associations with more flexibility to defend and promote their interests.

Mill indeed warns of the danger that the Society will evolve into a quasi-governmental department, and argues that the governance issue is the one the profession has to address first and foremost. That includes finding enough solicitors willing to commit themselves to playing a part – a sign of the times, he says, and a question also faced by other law societies. “I think the governance model we’ve had has been out of date for about five years. The whole issue of the role of the Council member and the role of office bearers is at the heart of the future of the Society. It’s the part of the equation that needs the most attention.”

Equipped to survive

But of the future of the profession itself he is more confident, notwithstanding the tough business conditions it is now enduring. “I’m completely optimistic about the legal profession’s ability to survive. I’m the legal profession’s biggest fan in Scotland. I do however believe it will survive in a different shape and form. It’s changed over the last 25 or 30 years, and it will continue to change. Ironically I suppose the effect of the recession will be that ABS will be deferred for a period, but now the Society has decided that its policy will be to accept them, ABS are coming, different methods of delivery are coming and the recession may well just accelerate the need for individual solicitors and the Society to be a bit more hardnosed and visionary.”

That said, he reckons the Scottish profession is among the leading half dozen in the world along the road to reform. This came out recently when the Society, working on paralegal development, surveyed its counterparts to find out how they handled such regulation, “and the answer was, we don’t know what you’re talking about”.

“I think we’re years ahead of Europe”, he adds. “I’ve actually found Europe to be very conservative and protectionist. I do think the Scottish legal profession, I’ve used this expression before, punches way above its weight, because we’re tiny, we’re 5,000,000 people with 12,000 lawyers, and yet every now and then the Scottish profession does something fairly fundamentally significant. I’d back a Scots lawyer against a lawyer from any other jurisdiction, even some of the top guys in London.”

Asked what he sees as the strengths the profession has to play to, he returns to the feedback he hears from abroad. “We are seen as an absolutely unimpeachably trustworthy brand. We are seen as well qualified – a good LLB from a good Scottish university is right up there in the world gold standard – and we’re also damn hard working. So I think we’re equipped to survive.”

Missing link

If there is one missing piece of the jigsaw, he adds, it is business skills – another of his regular clarion calls to the profession. “We’ve got some incredibly well managed firms, don’t get me wrong, but by and large we’re a £1.3 billion industry with insufficient managerial skill running chunky business units. We’ve got 1,274 firms out there and a lot of them are now realising that they’ve got big strategic choices to make, and they’re not equipped to make them without help. That’s why the recession maybe is a wakeup call: if you’re going to run a business, get some business skills.”

Which perhaps leads on to the future for Douglas Mill personally. Add “Consulting” to the name and you’ll get the idea. At 51 his energy is undiminished and it would be a mistake to think that Scottish solicitors have heard the last of him. And while, he admits, friends think he is mad to be setting up business in a recession, he believes the profession will the more readily see the need for management-related advice in the present climate. “Do you know, when I speak to solicitors outside the cities, the one thing they need most of all is someone to talk to. It’s a very tough and lonely job out there; it’s something we’ll never get government to appreciate. The problem might be one of your own partners and you can’t just go to a rival firm down the road and talk about it.”

With 18 years in private practice behind him as well as his 11 at Drumsheugh Gardens, he feels equipped to do the thing he says will make him happy – helping solicitors make a living. However, though he may be ready to move on, he recognises the opportunities as well as the challenges being at the Society has given him. “I’ve been to places I never thought I would go to. I’ve been very privileged – if you’d said to me 13 years ago in Macfarlane Young that I’d chair a conference in New York I’d have laughed myself silly; and it seriously was a privilege as a citizen to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament on the Legal Profession Bill.” But as for a favourite memory, for once he struggles for an answer, before coming back with “That’s like asking Bobby Charlton what was your favourite goal.”

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