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Values to the fore

13 August 12

A slightly abridged version of the guest address to new solicitors at the Law Society of Scotland's admission ceremony on 13 July 2012

by Frank Johnstone

It is genuinely both a pleasure and an honour to have been invited to give this address at this ceremony to admit newly qualified lawyers to the Law Society of Scotland.

I am very pleased to offer my heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you on what you have achieved. Today’s ceremony recognises the commitment you have made in terms of studying both at school and at university, and also the support which you have had from your parents, family, husbands, wives and partners.

I have three lossmaking subsidiaries, aged 24, 22 and 16, all of whom either have gone through or are going through the education system, and I can assure you that it really is a wonderful day when a child achieves a degree of independence and can be regarded as being “off the payroll”. I am sure there are many parents here today who deserve congratulations for the encouragement and support that they have given you over the years; however, today is your day and I hope that you will enjoy it.

While you have worked hard to be where you are today, in some senses the really hard work is still ahead of you, and it is the challenges which you will have to meet in the career you have selected which will make it so rewarding. Your legal studies at university and the training which you have received from the experienced solicitors for whom you are working will have equipped you with the analytical and communication skills to meet those challenges. Do not be afraid of them.

You will have learned that what is important is that you look after and safeguard the interests of your clients. Understand your clients; show interest in their lives and businesses. Understand the sectors in which they operate, the problems they encounter, whether emotional or economic. Give them excellent legal advice and sound commercial advice. Add value to their business. Manage their expectations effectively. If you do so, you will become a trusted and valued legal adviser.

The advice you give, may, on occasions, not be the advice that your client wants to hear, but do not shy away from giving it. Your client will respect for you for it.

You are joining the legal profession at a time when it is subject to a number of tensions and pressures. Some of these are external, caused by the economy, difficulties in Europe and beyond. The United Kingdom is heading towards a double dip recession, for the first time since the 1970s.

Over the past year fuel and utility bills have rocketed. Gas has gone up 16% and childcare has gone up nearly 6%. Earnings have fallen by more than 3% in 2011 – the biggest one year fall in 30 years. There are many in our society who are suffering real hardship. Some of you will be acting for them. You will on many occasions be dealing with the disadvantaged, the vulnerable and those with mental health issues. It is important that at all times you conduct yourself professionally and treat them, and everyone with whom you come into contact, with respect, civility and decency. It doesn’t matter whether it is the office junior, a person accused of a heinous crime, or an opponent – treat them all with politeness and respect. Lead by example.

Scottish lawyers and Scottish law firms have being going through a turbulent time, where perhaps the only certainty is change!

Law firms have been cutting back on hiring trainees, making redundancies and there have recently been a number of high profile mergers, many of these involving much larger English law firms. The long term impact of this latter trend remains to be seen.

In addition, the introduction of alternative business structures will allow for non-lawyers to become owners of law firms and for non-lawyers to be partners. While this will raise a number of issues regarding professional standards and professional independence, it is undoubtedly the case that it will create a number of opportunities.

In England & Wales, alternative business structures are already allowed. As at the end of June 2012, about eight licenses had been granted for ABS firms south of the border, and there are a number of other applications being processed. Some of these new service providers, for example the Co-operative Legal Services, will have the opportunity for greater investment and more funding than traditional law firms. The Co-operative has indicated that it intends to create around 3,000 jobs in the legal sector. It can be expected that some of these new legal services providers will innovate and promote new legal products, which will be advertised and delivered in new and creative ways and will generate new business and new markets.

While information technology can allow lawyers to innovate in relation to services provided and the way in which they are delivered, in many cases on a remote online basis, you must never lose sight of the fact that your relationships with your clients, colleagues, partners, and employees are critical. It is increasingly the case that legal services are supplied with the support of non-lawyers, for example IT, document production, and information management personnel. These can all be key members of the legal team – value them as such.

The most of important relationship of all will be with your husband, wife, partner, and family. Do not neglect them for your career. Yes work hard, and on occasions, you may not be about as much as you would like, or you may require to be away from home on business, but on your return, do not immediately switch on your Blackberry. It can be difficult, but get your work-life balance right. It is not easy being a lawyer – if it was, medics would do it!

The practice of law can be stressful. Do not subscribe to that west of Scotland belief that a problem shared is a problem doubled. If you need help, professionally or emotionally, speak to a colleague, your partner or the Law Society of Scotland. No man is an island.

Law firms and lawyers will have to evolve, diversify and innovate if they are to meet the current challenges with which the profession is faced and take advantage of the opportunities that exist, in terms of new technologies enabling legal services to be provided in a more streamlined and accessible manner. The opportunities that you will have and the challenges you will face will be exciting ones. Seize them.

A number of you may go on to pursue careers involving the practice of criminal law, prosecuting the accused or defending them. You will come into contact with those who are accused of abhorrent crimes, but you must ensure that you comply with your professional obligations and act in their best interest. Your legal career, irrespective of whether you go into private practice, in-house, commerce, or the public sector, will very often afford you an insight into human nature. Albert Camus stated in his novel “La Peste”, that “there is more in man to be admired than condemned”. You will very often see the worst in people, whether that has been prompted through violence, greed, jealousy or addiction, but you will often see that which is good. Do not lose sight of it, do not become cynical and do not stop caring.

On occasions, however, you may come in for criticism simply for being a lawyer! But remember, it is when those who criticise you need you that you are appreciated. It is when those who have been unfairly dismissed, suffered prejudice, or have been unfairly accused need lawyers that they will appreciate your skill, your dedication, your commitment and your professionalism. Do not let them down.

The legal profession and the Law Society of Scotland are committed to high standards of conduct. Theses standards include integrity, honesty, trust, and include obligations which you owe to clients to act in the client’s best interest, and to give independent advice free from external influence or personal interest and confidentiality. These values are integral to being a solicitor. Do not compromise them, and hold true to them.

There are many challenges and opportunities waiting for you in your professional life. You are lucky: being a solicitor is a privilege and you are in a position of great trust and people depend on you. It is critical that you comply with the obligations incumbent on you and act for those clients with skill, dedication and professionalism. Congratulations on your achievement so far, and I wish you well in your legal careers.

Frank R Johnstone is a partner, Consumer Finance and Recoveries Unit with McClure Naismith LLP



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