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President's column

13 August 12

London is, rightly, a magnet for Scots-qualified lawyers, but even home-based firms can carve out opportunities south of the border

by Austin Lafferty

Turn again Whittington. That line beloved of pantos over the decades. Thrice Lord Mayor and owner of a smashing cat. The Big Smoke where the streets are paved with gold. That’s London for you.

And I say you, as one way and another so many solicitors have a London angle. Outside Glasgow and Edinburgh, that is where the largest population of Scottish-qualified solicitors work, all 500 or so of them/us. And on top of that, a substantial and growing number of English-qualified Scots ply their trade under the Law Society of England & Wales/Solicitors Regulation Authority banner. Including, as it happens, my son. He is still doing his university studies but has a traineeship to start shortly with Freshfields, one of the Magic Circle firms there. He will, though, remain closely interested in and connected with what we in the Law Society of Scotland do, and has begun to help with liaison on some events we are involved in.

And we have a good ’un in Alberto Costa as our Council member in London, representing the members of the Society furth of Scotland, to use the old phrase. Alberto is a partner in his own firm, Costa Carlisle; since his election to Council a few months ago, he has shown an enthusiasm for the interests of the Society and the Council, and is closely involved in arranging the forthcoming Independence Debate being hosted by the Society in the Houses of Parliament on 1 November. Some heavy hitters will weigh in on the merits and possibly unforeseen consequences for the legal system in a post-referendum Scotland. An audience of lawyers will cross-examine.

Twice a year the office bearers of the Society meet with our counterparts in the four jurisdictions – us, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and England & Wales. It is a fascinating meeting, when we get to hear the worries, the occasional successes, the progress and the events that each body experiences.

And timing is everything. With the rise of ABS and indeed the growing number of cross-border amalgamations, we in Scotland need to look to ourselves to gauge how we size up against our partners and rivals. No matter how positive have been convergences of our firms and English ones, the centres of gravity are London or the south, and what we don’t want is a drift or even a drip of practising certificates from Scotland to England.

Precisely as we will explore at the Society’s “Law in Scotland” conference on 18 September, for every threat, there is an opportunity. People with big money don’t just go to the country with the biggest banks; they go to the best. Switzerland is not London or Paris or Frankfurt. I don’t say we will ever find it easy to compete with our cousins in tempting firms and clients to choose Scotland, but if there was ever a time to consider the challenge, it is now.

Let me put it in another context. Ever since my firm put together a decent website (no glory to me – my partner and some expert legal web folk did that), we not only have seen new clients increase, but we have a steady stream of enquiries from England for all sorts of work (especially, for some reason we can’t work out, Portsmouth). These potential clients don’t register (or care) that we are in Scotland. They want a good service and a satisfactory outcome. They identify quality, not necessarily just on our site but many other Scots ones, and make what to them is a logical enquiry. I am already most of the way to believing that in due course, locus of registration will be a choice, and quality and efficiency will be bigger drivers than narrow nationality.

Even now there is nothing new about being dual qualified: the said Mr Costa is so ambidextrous, as is eminent past President of the Law Society of Scotland Ruthven Gemmell.

There is a huge regulatory and political operation to negotiate, and we are only at the stage of thinking through the merits of the idea and the possible ways forward, but I for one wish to err on the side of not standing still.

The LSS may be David to the LSEW’s Goliath, but I think we have the stones for it.

Austin Lafferty is President of the Law Society of Scotland

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