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Beyond the downturn

16 February 09

President's message: while supporting members through the recession, the Society, like the profession, must also plan for opportunities ahead

by Richard Henderson

It will pass

Official confirmation that the UK slid into recession in the final quarter of 2008 came as little surprise last month, least of all to those in the legal services sector. The predicted length and depth of the recession is a matter of far less certainty, with some anticipating the worst downturn in the post-war period, while others forecast a less drastic contraction of the economy. All are agreed on one thing – it will pass. And I have no doubt the legal profession will be, as it must be, at the forefront of that recovery; thorough business planning now is the key to future success.

The Society is certainly working hard to ensure continued support for the profession. We are providing more information on the website, including a business toolkit containing practice management ideas and advice (which can be accessed by following the “Professional support” link on the home page), and in the e-bulletin.

We are also discussing proposals for a second high street conference, planning a scheme to link up practitioners with business advisers, and maintaining dialogue with the banks to highlight the importance of the legal profession to their business. The Society will continue to monitor the trading environment and offer appropriate help and support to the profession.

Robust framework

Much of our energy this year will be directed at addressing the effects of recession, but we are also focused on the challenges the alternative business structure debate will present. The Scottish Government’s consultation paper, Wider choice and better protection, was published last month. In preparing our response, we will consider carefully the bigger picture as well as the detail. We anticipate that the Legal Profession (Scotland) Bill will be introduced before the summer recess. The Society and the profession will continue to have considerable input in that process. The Society is represented on the Government’s bill reference group and we will remain at the heart of the decision-making process, arguing strongly for a robust regulatory framework that protects access to justice and safeguards solicitors’ core values.

Significant agenda

All of this will be going on while we continue to work on other areas of real significance. We have had discussions with ministers about how the review of home reports will operate, with agreement that the planning process for that should begin now. We will keep the profession informed of developments. We are also examining the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s budget proposals for 2009-10. Uppermost in our minds is the financial burden of the levy on the profession, especially given the impact of the economic downturn. I encourage members to pass their views to the Society.

The education and training consultation, The Way Forward, closed earlier this month and we are now considering how the issue is to be developed, again mindful of the recession and the probable contraction of traditional training opportunities. We are continuing to explore opportunities for solicitors at home and abroad, ensuring the market is aware of the qualities and value offered by the profession. For instance, we plan to develop an international strategy geared towards helping secure business abroad for Scottish solicitors.

Ordering our own house

In order to undertake all this work and to prepare for the reforms indicated by the Government’s consultation paper, it is important that we focus on our own processes and structures. Change is necessary so that the Society can retain its role as effective regulator and representative body; and to ensure the profession is best placed to respond to the challenges of tomorrow. The need to plan ahead, beyond the recession and reform of legal services, is as crucial for the Society as it is for individual firms. Designing the right governance structure is therefore central to our future success. I know that Ian Smart and Jamie Millar – and I congratulate them on their appointment as President-elect and Vice President-elect – also share that vision.

All of these factors point to changes in the way we work; the way we arrange our affairs; the way we make decisions; and the way the profession sees itself. The current economic difficulties can easily monopolise our attention at a time when so much is in prospect. There are other pressing issues and much else around the world to give us cause for concern, even if there are more hopeful signs of new approaches, for example to human rights from some quarters. If any crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity, we must remain focused firmly on the opportunities.

 

 

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