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Thinking ahead

14 Apr 08

President's message: decision time is on us for taking forward the plans for new forms of legal practice - but firms face other issues that also call for forward planning

by Richard Henderson

Crunch time

As I write, the proposals put forward by the ABS working group are being finalised to present to Council. A policy paper will be distributed later this month, giving members an opportunity to consider the contents before the Annual General Meeting on 22 May. An overview of some of the key issues is provided by Ian Smart in this edition of the Journal and I’m sure it will be of interest.

I certainly believe some exciting times lie ahead, with opportunities for some and challenges for others. The introduction of alternative business structures – and the Scottish Government has indicated that reform of legal service provision is inevitable – will affect the whole profession, in whichever sector and whatever the nature of the firm’s business. It will impact on big firms with aspirations to compete on an international stage, as well as high street businesses committed to providing the best possible services to their clients. In-house lawyers and those in private practice will be affected, as will rural and urban solicitors, legal aid and otherwise.

In considering that, we can see that the profession may look very different in the future, not least for the solicitors of tomorrow. The ABS working party has worked hard, solved many imponderables, and written and made proposals which are essential reading for all members, their staff and their clients.

Plan for balance

The profile of the profession has changed enormously over the past 20 years and will continue to do so at pace, a fact I was reminded of at the March admissions ceremony for new solicitors. It came as no great surprise that 47 of the 62 new entrants were women, though that number of female entrants was high even by current standards. As the age and gender profile of the profession changes, we must all be prepared for the effects of change, new solicitors and experienced professionals alike.

That will mean taking different approaches to the way we work, not just where business models and structures are concerned but over much more personal issues, such as the work-life balance. Most people quite rightly want to achieve the right balance between the competing demands of home and the workplace: individuals and firms will have to respond to those shifts in attitude. Forward thinking is needed if practices are to take advantage of new developments.

Standard bearers

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission is due to publish its budget in advance of opening its doors in October this year, which adds urgency to the Society’s determination to prepare a statement of clear and enforceable professional standards that will benefit both solicitors and clients. Of course, the legal profession in Scotland already delivers very high standards, but this exercise is intended to articulate better that level of professional excellence. We should be proud of the standards we aspire to – and achieve – and use that as the basis on which we can build the profession of the future. The Society’s work on developing standards will soon progress to full consultation.

Issues such as ABS and standards can sometimes be viewed in black and white terms: good or bad, opportunity or threat. Like so many other things in life, the reality for most is likely to lie somewhere in between. Finding the middle ground is a challenge for us all. The difference between success and failure may lie in seeking actively to influence the agenda of the future, rather than by adopting a reactive approach to change.

Core principles reaffirmed

Last month, I considered key issues relating to access to justice. It is a key issue that needs serious consideration when taking ABS reform forward, and one of the core principles that govern our profession. It is right that we recognise and cherish our core principles. Equally, we should always strive to do so in a way that meets the circumstances and needs of the day.

Many of the 62 solicitors who entered the profession last month will still be practising in 30 years’ time. Let us ensure that the core principles of today – in place for the benefit for solicitors and their clients – remain with them throughout their working lives, as they forge the Scottish legal profession of the future.