Strangers in the House
Profile of the Society's new non-lawyer Council members
Their proposed arrival on Council caused much argument within the profession, some claiming that it spells the end of professional independence. Now they are here, and getting down to business. But who are our nine new non-lawyer members of Council, and what do they hope to contribute?
Two of them at least are no strangers to Council business: Professor Stewart Hamilton and Dr Bronwen Cohen were two of the four who served as lay observers before full membership could be granted. Hamilton, an Emeritus Professor of Accounting and Finance, convenes the Society’s Audit Committee and has served on the Company Law Committee, while Dr Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, led the Council working party considering office bearer and convener remuneration.
"My time as a lay observer made me aware of the important role the Society serves not only as a representative body for solicitors but as a major player in Scotland’s civil society, and I was pleased to become a full member”, Cohen says. “In my view, lay members are a valuable means of enabling any profession to see ourselves through the eyes of others: as users as well as fellow professionals confronting some of the same challenges.”
Christopher Fraser also knows the Society, as a reporter and committee member in the former complaints handling system, and now through the Professional Conduct and Professional Practice Committees. He also sits on the Inverness Harbour Trust and the management committee of Cairn Housing Association.
Between them the nine members have an impressive spread of governance experience. Jim Gallagher was head civil servant at the Scottish Executive Justice Department, and then of devolution within the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Justice, and has held various non-executive directorships.
Robin McGill was a top executive with BP, for whom, after a globetrotting career, he ran the Grangemouth refinery complex until its sale – a process through which he had to guide the local community as well as the organisation. He has also run the Institute of Engineering Technology, an international membership organisation 12 times the size of the Society, and one which has been through many of the challenges the Society now faces.
Also versed in the challenges facing a membership organisation, Suzanne Dawson has served on the board of Scotland’s Colleges, as well as those of two individual colleges. A Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and freelance marketing and business consultant, she aims to help the Society engage with members and with the public.
Stirling-based John Reid has a manufacturing and trade association background, with a particular interest in IP, now working with Scottish Enterprise in commercialising intellectual assets, as well as commercial law.
Martin Allan, meanwhile, holds honours degrees in construction and is a technical member of the RICS, but has extensive experience in community organisations in the Glasgow area, as well as health improvement and disability advisory groups.
Finally, Professor Kay Hampton (Emeritus in community and race relations) has “an academic, personal and professional interest in the interface between criminal (anti-discrimination, human rights) and social justice”. Also a member of the new Regulatory Committee, she has been a human rights and equality commissioner, and has experienced periods of transition in corporate governance.
Asked how they see the Society's role in promoting the interests of the public in relation to the solicitors’ profession, the strongest emphasis is on helping the Society overcome the continuing public perception that it is simply there to defend the profession.
“It really needs to think through that role”, says McGill, for example. “It says all the right things, but I’m not sure it really does all the right things and really lives that day to day.” Reid comments: “I sense that the profession has to take more ownership of engaging with the public and making them aware of their rights and how the profession can help them.” And Gallagher: “What I am not sure is that we yet see how best to explain that role to the public and others, and to set out persuasively how it is distinguished from the Society's role in looking after the profession”; though “I have always thought it should be possible to do both.”
Hampton agrees about public misconceptions, but adds: “I believe that the Society does, in reality, protect public interest as well, since it sets and regulates the standards for professional practice in Scotland.” Similarly Dawson responds: “The Society has a key role in promoting the interests of the public by ensuring a quality profession both through regulation and support.” For Fraser it is imperative that the Society “conveys to the public that safeguards are in place to ensure, as far as possible, that clients can have every confidence in their solicitor”.
“The Society does have a difficult role in balancing looking after the needs and interests of its membership while regulating the profession in the public interest”, Hamilton comments. “The new lay members will help ensure that that balance is maintained.”
Cohen suggests: “By moving from a few observers to establishing a significant body of lay opinion, these wider perspectives become integral to Council discussion – and strengthen the Society’s position, understanding and ability to protect the public interest.”
Their first Council meeting took place after the summer break and had a pretty massive agenda. What did they make of it? “I found it informative and friendly and was encouraged by the enthusiasm to deal with the challenges internally and externally”, Allan comments. “The new lay members were made very welcome, and the meeting conducted in a friendly but professional manner”, Fraser adds.
Certainly the new members made their mark, with a large number of interventions. “It was noticeable that the majority of contributions came from lay members, maybe because it was their first time”, says Reid, “but I think they have a lot to offer as well as a lot to learn. I think Society is going in the right direction and has very good, balanced mix of lay members.”
Hampton was not alone in being initially surprised at the size of Council, “but this is understandable”, she says, “given the increased number of lay members and the broad spectrum of practitioner and geographical representation”. Numbers will reduce if the proposed new constitution finally goes through.
Hamilton adds: “Already it is apparent after only two Council meetings under the new order, that the nature of the discussions and debate have altered and I believe, for the better.”
But perhaps the final word should go to Jim Gallagher. “Even after a lifetime in the bureaucracy, I was impressed by the organisation’s paper generating capacity – up there with the leaders in the bumf stakes.”