Around the world, the concerns facing lawyers are remarkably similar, but perhaps it is Northern Ireland that offers pointers as to how smaller practices might develop new opportunities
The many hundreds of conversations that I have been fortunate enough to have over the past year with colleagues from all across the globe have invariably been stimulating and fascinating. One of the most telling features, though, is the similarity of so many of the issues that solicitors raise, wherever in the world their jurisdictions may be.
Concerns around court funding, access to justice, independence of the judiciary, new technology-driven competition, shifts in client expectations, the long-term impact of the recent economic circumstances and so on. Among all that, the extent to which people are keen to hear our perspective and what is going on in Scotland is both interesting and reassuring. I was struck last summer by how much awareness of the independence referendum there was in the USA, Canada and Hong Kong, as well as nearer home across the EU.
Most recently, I have been hearing about the economic context in Northern Ireland and the opportunities for their solicitors’ profession. Over the last two or three years, 30,000 new jobs have been created in the Northern Ireland economy generally, with – surprisingly, perhaps – agriculture being the largest sector by a very significant margin. Construction is still in negative growth, but the housing market is rebounding, with price increases (though variable across the country) second only to London within the UK and equal with progress in Wales.
Business lending is up 120%, with half of that new business. The purchasing manager index shows a slight but noticeable increase in confidence. And it is confidence that I would like to focus on. Northern Ireland’s economy is dominated by micro-businesses – those employing fewer than 15 people – which comprise up to 95% of the total. So confidence is a very important factor, since consumer behaviour, which drives sustainable growth in the smaller business sector more than government or Treasury intervention, has a much more significant impact on micro-businesses than on corporate behemoths.
Areas with potential
A significant number of legal firms in Scotland would be classed as micro-businesses. Talking up the solicitors’ profession and its opportunities, and being relentlessly positive and optimistic – all of which helps to build confidence – is something, I suggest, that we should all be doing. And opportunities there are. One hears increasingly frequently of issues around the care of the elderly, which is hardly surprising in an ageing population. And the land and property markets are picking up again, driven only in part by greater liquidity in lenders: consumer confidence also plays a part.
On the former practice area, there remains greater scope for firms and solicitors to develop particular expertise. On the latter, I would very much like to see even closer collaboration between the solicitors’ property centres, which I believe could improve further their effectiveness, not just in meeting the challenge from competitors in today’s market but in returning it with interest. I still look at the relevant property centre first when exploring an area; recently I reflected on why that is. I concluded fairly quickly that it is because they are the solicitors’ property centres, my trusted professional advisers of choice.
I would also dearly like to see a standard missive for Scotland. And I believe opportunities will flow with the commencement of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012, anticipated in the late autumn this year, which will bring with it the option of electronic contracts (and not just for the sale and purchase of land and property), executed digitally.
I know our working party looking at conveyancing and its future practice is considering all these issues, and I expect there will be discussion of them at this month’s AGM, during the panel session, which will focus on the challenges and opportunities for the future.
Also at the AGM, a move to electronic voting for council constituency elections will be debated. A small but important and exciting step on the modernisation of process and engagement.
Sticking with the future, the European Young Bar Association Spring Conference was held in Edinburgh last month and was an excellent event. A highly relevant and wide-ranging business programme was supported by a great social one – and all very ably organised by the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association committee, led by their excellent President, Fiona McAllister, and Vice President Emma Boffey. The delegates came from right across the EU and were very clearly the future of the profession. Finding ways of harnessing their particular talents with technology, social media, diversity and flexibility is vital.
Next month’s will be my final column as President. I will be lobbying the editor of the Journal to see if he might manage to afford me a little more space in which to sign off to you all.
Bruce Beveridge is President of the Law Society of Scotland