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Conference calls

14 September 15

“Leading Legal Excellence” is the theme for this year's annual conference of the Society. As a taster, the Journal spoke to three keynote speakers, each with a mission to promote excellence

by Peter Nicholson

Leading Legal Excellence is the title of the Society’s ambitious new five-year strategy through to 2020. It is also the theme chosen for this year’s Law in Scotland conference, which takes place in Edinburgh on 2 October, with a speaker lineup to match the title. Some insightful and at times challenging views can be expected from our three keynote interviewees, each of whom shows a passion for excellence in very contrasting forms.

Top-level expectations

Court lawyers in particular should benefit from hearing Lord Hodge, one of the two Scottish Justices on the UK Supreme Court. Having now spent two full sitting years in London, he has a perspective on the recent efficiency improvements in the Court of Session and High Court which, he believes, have “come on by leaps and bounds in recent years... with the increasing case management in the Scottish courts we are achieving results that are comparable to England in many cases”.

The Supreme Court itself enjoys state-of-the-art facilities, with all documents in electronic as well as paper form, along with a pool of eight judicial assistants who carry out background research for the Justices. Hodge’s conference address will, however, focus on the role of solicitors in achieving excellence in presentation of cases before the court – something that has assumed greater importance, he says, with the much tighter timetabling of cases and greater pre-hearing preparation in comparison with his early years as counsel before the House of Lords.

“I remain convinced of the value of oral advocacy, because it does change the minds of the Justices even when the written materials are of top quality,” he comments, “but it does mean that the papers that come before the court really have to be in very good order.” He mentions several techniques that assist the conduct of a hearing, including efficient pagination of both hard copy numbers and electronic bundle numbers – some Justices prefer to consult one format and some the other while sitting.

His audience can expect further insights, one being how the Justices debate a case immediately after they rise. In addition, “I’ll be talking about how we work within the Supreme Court, to give practitioners an idea of how their work fits into the way the court operates. I’ll also be speaking on oral advocacy before the court, because some solicitors who have gained rights of audience may aspire to present cases there, and also about the preparation of material, which is an invaluable role. And when cases come at short notice it’s one that imposes not inconsiderable pressure on the instructing solicitors.

“Basically, the view of the Justices is that a well presented appeal is a team effort, and if it’s done thoroughly it does lead to legal excellence. You can see when it’s done well. It’s actually very obvious.”

View from the River

A more challenging message, for some in the profession at least, is likely to come from Karl Chapman, chief executive of Riverview Law. A new entrant to the market under the ABS reforms in England & Wales, Riverview Law provides legal services to corporate customers (his label, rather than clients) on a fixed pricing model. The business was born in 2010 from Chapman’s AdviserPlus human resources consultancy when, as he explains, client companies started asking for legal work in addition.

“We asked why, and they answered, ‘It’s because everything you do is fixed price; we have absolute certainty; we never have a bill shock; you give us monthly review and planning meetings; you are always making things better going forward, and you have real-time management information and data, which means we can see exactly what’s happening.’ I sat there and said, ‘That’s very interesting – don’t you get that from your law firms, or your in-house function?’ And they said no.”

Chapman goes on to list four ways in which he believes Riverview Law differs from more traditional legal practices. First, as a limited company, rather than distributing profits to partners, its focus is on driving long term capital growth. Secondly, its business model is not based on transactional work but on long term contracts with blue chip organisations, and high renewal rates. “That gives you phenomenal visibility of earnings, and I can give you a reasonably good flavour of our forecasting over the next two or three years because we’ve got contracted revenue,” he points out. “That’s really helpful because it allows us to invest heavily in research and development, people etc.”

He continues: “The third point, which people find interesting, is that we are not organised by practice area. We don’t have a litigation practice, an employment practice: we’re organised by customer. Our business is built around customers and our teams are built around customers and the team focus on the customer. So you can tailor the skillsets and the people to do that. Finally, the thing that I think people find different in our model is our very strong focus on management information, data and technology. That helps us drive high quality and great efficiency, and that’s what allows us to deliver fixed prices.”

So far, the formula is working: turnover in the first few full years of trading has gone from £2 million to £5 million to an expected £8 million-plus for the current year, with £14-15 million projected next time round. In addition, as with other new ventures, it can happen with or without ABS legislation in force – Scots lawyers take note. Riverview Law was advising, fully in line with regulatory requirements, for two years before it obtained its ABS licence, and though the licence permits a more streamlined operation, at the end of the day customers are not concerned with how the business is set up, Chapman says.

“They want to know that we are regulated, that we deliver high quality, all the things you would anticipate, but we never get asked questions about structure. It’s all about whether we can deliver the service they are seeking.”

Regulators behind the curve

Chapman has a wider message for legal regulators: with a few exceptions, “generically across the world, the regulators are not keeping up with what is happening in the marketplace, and they’re certainly not keeping up with what is happening in technology”.

He continues: “If you look at the advances in expert systems, in automation, in artificial intelligence and the consequences of these over the next five or 10 years, that’s going to present some very interesting regulatory challenges about what is the definition of the practice of law – what should be regulated and what should not be regulated?”

Returning to his theme of drivers from the marketplace, Chapman adds: “The challenge is that the customer is driving change, at pace, whether it’s the consumer or the large corporation or the small business. And it will be interesting for regulators to try and keep up with that. I don’t think the regulator does the profession any service if it actually doesn’t enable the profession to compete. There’s an interesting debate about what does the regulator do going forward. That’s not an easy question, but it certainly is an important one.”

A law graduate himself before an initial move into fund management, Chapman has in turn founded and grown three successful businesses, principally by identifying big new market developments: IT training and recruitment, then HR consultancy with the emergence of “commoditisation” in professional services, and now the changing legal services market. His concluding thoughts? “This is a fantastic time to be in the legal market, because it’s at a point of fundamental change. That change is being driven by the customer, whatever that customer is; it’s also being driven by the regulator, and in particular by technology. The question for all of us is, how do we respond to that? What do we do about it, and how do we capitalise on it? It’s a great time to be in the legal market; it’s a fantastic opportunity.”

The rule of law advances?

An emerging influence of a very different nature on the legal world is the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, whose founding director Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC will also deliver a keynote conference address.

Created in 2010 in honour of the late Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the only judge to have successively held the offices of Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord, and who wrote a book dedicated to the rule of law, the Centre’s mission is to understand and promote the rule of law worldwide, consider the challenges it faces, provide an intellectual framework within which it can operate, and fashion the practical tools to support it.

Now employing a dozen full time researchers, with additional support from practitioners and academics from across the UK, the Bingham Centre has become involved in a remarkable range of work, within the UK and overseas, as its reputation has spread. Asked to pick out some highlights, Jowell points to promoting safeguards in respect of the UK Government’s cutting down of judicial review and legal aid, along with work in the area of fair trials. Abroad, it has worked on constitutional options for Burma (Myanmar), with the national parliament and figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi; with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, advising on the balance between the judiciary and the executive; and with the University of Cape Town, and the Commonwealth Secretariat, on judicial appointment methods that protect judicial independence. “The Centre has grown since its establishment just under five years ago. Its support has increased and we’ve been in Scotland on a couple of occasions to give talks and try to enlist the support of the legal profession and others.”

The Centre was recently appointed to provide secretariat support for a new UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on the rule of law, chaired by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC – something Jowell considers important to improving the understanding of the rule of law among elected politicians.

“It used to be the case that there were a number of high-powered lawyers in the House of Commons, and this was possible because the hours were such that they could spend time with their practice, but since that has changed I think that the quality of lawyers and the quantity of lawyers in the House of Commons – the House of Lords might be different – has greatly decreased, so you often do not get the kind of scrutiny of legislation through the prism of the rule of law which you need. We’ve seen a number of instances of this, and that’s one of the reasons why the All-Party Group is so important, so that we can raise with Members of Parliament issues before commitments are made, before the bill stage when we know the Government is intending, for example, to do something about a particular issue.”

He adds his weight to those who think it would be a serious mistake for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights: “The fact is the existence of the Convention has made a huge difference across Europe, and if we decide we are going to back out of the Convention there will be champagne corks popping in places like Belarus, and Hungary and Russia these days – they will say that if Britain, which was one of the founders of the Convention, wants to backtrack and not subscribe to all those rights, then we are certainly justified in not doing so.”

Streaming in

The conference is getting good value from Sir Jeffrey Jowell: aside from his keynote address, he leads one of the streamed sessions, on another topic of recent interest to the Bingham Centre – devolution. This, he explains, is “shot through with rule of law issues, and many of them haven’t been terribly carefully considered in the past... very often what is neglected are the issues that bind the UK, questions of intergovernmental relations and how they should be managed”. So a recent report from the Centre proposes that these principles, and in general the principles by which devolution is carried out, should be set out in a “charter of the Union” to provide a “fair and durable settlement” between the four home nations.

Attendees will find a wide choice of streamed sessions, from business models to reputation building, from the gender pay gap to collaboration networks, from land registration to administrative justice – not to mention a further closing keynote address, from leadership and performance expert Rasmus Ankersen. All too much to survey properly here but, for the full agenda, and all other conference information, go to www.etouches.com/lis2015

Christine McLintock, the Society’s President, hopes the profession will seize the chance to attend. “This year’s conference has an outstanding lineup of speakers talking on a wide range of topics. Whether it’s global, constitutional, technological or the practical side of running your business, there will be something at the conference which will appeal to all and we very much look forward to welcoming you to join us on 2 October.” 

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