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President's column

20 February 17

In the face of challenges to lawyers and the rule of law, the profession must be ready to stand up and be counted. It must also make best use of resources to ensure sustainability through innovation

by Eilidh Wiseman

Anyone who has seen the film Night at the Museum, or indeed read the book, will know that museums come alive after dark. This was very much the case a couple of weeks ago when the National Museum of Scotland played host to the Law Society of Scotland’s annual dinner. And my word did the museum come alive.

The daily hustle and bustle of families, students, visitors and tourists was replaced as the Grand Gallery was transformed into an elegant dining hall full of laughter, music and chatter. It was the Society’s and my own personal opportunity to toast those who have played a part in our work over the past year, and to pay tribute to our wonderful legal profession and its role more generally.

As lawyers we are entrusted with many secrets. We are privy to the highs and lows experienced by our clients and expected at all times to put their interests first. This trust is not given lightly and must be jealously guarded. In real life, lawyers are the last bastion of liberty; the buffer zone between the state and the individual; the safe area where anything can be said in the knowledge that it will not be disclosed and where justice is sought rather than one person’s perception of the truth. At this time when we see the potential for the erosion of legal professional privilege, we must stand up and be counted.

At a conference recently, the French Minister of Justice, Jean-Jacques Urvoas, encouraged delegates to explain to citizens what we understand as the rule of law. He described it as a state of grace where those who are strong accept limits on their power for the good of all. That seems particularly apt at the moment.

All that said, we know that we ourselves as a profession can sometimes be the barrier to progress. The “we’ve always done it this way”, or the “I don’t have time to try new systems” attitudes get in the way of moving forward and being able to take advantage of new ways of working and thinking. But change is upon us already. The next generation will not understand our clinging to the old ways. With alternative business structures just round the corner, there will be new entrants to our market and we must adapt now to provide sustainability for the future. This was a point very well made by the Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, in her keynote address at the Society’s conference in September.

Take heart, though. This is not a vision of doom and gloom. We have the resources to make some changes already. But I’m not just talking about finance here – we have a variety of tools at our disposal. Within your workplaces, sound out those colleagues who have an interest in technology, or perhaps consider involving all colleagues in pulling together your plans for the next three to five years. Not only could this improve engagement, it could unearth the game-changing insight or idea all businesses seek.

As a nation we have a proud history of innovation and enterprise. We advise entrepreneurs and business people on their most creative ideas. Let’s put our problem-solving skills to good use in our own businesses and areas of work. Let’s be bold. We have a legal system which is respected the world over, and dispute resolution processes which are presided over by a modern and forward-looking judiciary. We have the most solid of platforms upon which to build sustainable businesses – businesses which are flexible, dynamic and significant contributors to our country’s economy.

The Society itself is currently sounding out a potentially bold and innovative move. We have launched a consultation seeking the views of members and other interested parties on the potential for introducing alternative routes to qualification into the profession. The consultation is available at www.lawscot.org.uk. We would appreciate your views.

Elsewhere, examining the future viability of legal aid provision for the most vulnerable in society is the focus of our recently-published legal aid research report, which is covered in this edition. I encourage you to read the report and get involved in the debate around legal aid funding it aims to spark.

Until next month,

Eilidh

Eilidh Wiseman is President of the Law Society of Scotland – president@lawscot.org.uk; Twitter: @eilidh_wiseman

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