With the Roberton review, the SLCC and Brexit likely to lead the Society's agenda, incoming President Graham Matthews tells the Journal of his high street outlook and his expectations for his year
“If I can influence anything at all, I would like to get back to basics, to why I became a lawyer in the first place.”
Graham Matthews, who takes up office at the end of May as the Law Society of Scotland’s next President, is a high street lawyer through and through, and describes himself as “very much a people person”. But with long experience of Society governance matters since he joined Council in 2005 – he is now equal third longest-serving member – he is no stranger to the issues affecting the wider profession that are lining up for attention.
Despite hailing from an Aberdeenshire farming family, Matthews always wanted to be a lawyer – confessing an aversion for mud, though he and his wife do keep horses. Whatever the reason, he left home to study in the bright lights of Aberdeen, all of 34 miles distant (“It seemed a long way away”), before an apprenticeship in Musselburgh (an involved story, to do with recession, pondering other work, and a chance visit to his university mailbox) was followed by a return north, to Inverurie, where he has sat at the same desk since 1981.
Time in practice since then has seen his firm, Peterkins, undergo one change of name and several mergers or amalgamations, and Matthews himself undertake a variety of work: “What you would expect of a high street lawyer. Not legal aid any more [of which more below]. Or criminal work. Most other things.”
As for Council experience, he has served on the Guarantee Fund/Client Protection Subcommittee throughout his time, with spells also on Professional Practice, Remuneration and Regulation, along with various working parties: readers may recall his opposition when “sep rep” of mortgage lenders and borrowers was proposed as a practice rule.
Despite his background, Matthews declines to predict any shift in emphasis compared with his two immediate predecessors, both big firm, city lawyers. “One thing I’ve learned, and I’ve learned a lot this year as Vice President, is you can set all the priorities you want, but external forces will probably change them for you. For example nobody a year ago would have foreseen Brexit. Or that we would have such a major issue with the Complaints Commission.”
That set the context for his “back to basics” comment. He follows up with: “I don’t do civil legal aid any more, but I think there’s still a huge need for it. In Aberdeen, and Aberdeenshire, there’s a real need and there are very few firms doing civil legal aid in particular these days. That was pretty much my background in Musselburgh; nobody’s doing it now and it presents a massive issue for access to justice.”
It is not hard to see why. “The reason I had to give up doing civil legal aid was I couldn’t justify it to my partners any more. We couldn’t afford to run a charity division if you like. So we didn’t do it. But hats off to those who do.”
He recalls a particular case of need. “In Inverurie I used to come in on a Monday morning and remove a tape from the answering machine. There was a woman who would phone while her husband was beating her up; it was her way of recording the evidence. That’s pretty powerful stuff. In those days we would go to court and sort it out. But that must be still going on and who’s doing it now; who’s helping these people? Because it impacts so much on society as well.”
One item at least of the Society’s wish list is happening. Anticipated in our interview, and announced since, is the Scottish Government’s review of legal services regulation, covering the complaints system as well as the professional bodies. However, the 15-month timescale plus likely subsequent procedures will take us, on present projections, to the peak of the Brexit negotiations and legislation, missing the potential legislative window ahead of that. How much of a problem will it be, then, if reform is further delayed?
“If we don’t get it through, we will have to live with what we’ve got,” Matthews replies. “We can do that, but it would be so much better with something more up to date, sooner rather than later.” He knows the weaknesses of the 1980 Act as it applies to contemporary practice: “Wearing my hat as a long-term member of the Client Protection Subcommittee, there have been times when we did have certain issues which it was difficult to find a way round, just because of the way the statute is worded.”
There is also the ongoing issue of alternative business structures. “We had this huge debate up to 2010, and here we are seven years later, for those who wanted to take advantage, it’s never happened. A lot of the bigger firms have merged with other people; these have been great success stories but you wonder if it would have been different if we had had the ABS regime in earlier.
“In terms of my part of the profession, it’s held us back as well, because my size of firm would quite like to have a finance director as a partner or director, but we haven’t been able to do that, and the same would be true for some of the bigger firms.”
On a visit to China, he learned that the Chinese are very interested in the prospect of investing in legal firms, which they can now do in England & Wales. Would the Society encourage that in Scotland? “I think it’s down to each firm what external investment they have. For the legal services market in China, they see it as a way of accessing high quality talent. Because they want to protect their market much as we protected ours. There’s always this fear, if we went down the ABS route, that it would attract unsavoury characters, but the other side of the coin is that it would attract investment which would by now have enabled some firms maybe to grow organically rather than have to merge with others. Hopefully we’ll get that sorted fairly soon.”
He adds: “We would like to see the new Act in place before 2020, and one thing I’ll be doing is pushing as hard as I can for the Scottish Government to shorten the review period. We’ve already given them a very good paper with the changes we need. But it’s their review; we’ve got to be part of that. If we didn’t get it we would still survive. We’re very good at finding a way to do things.”
Complaints about the SLCC
With the complaints system also coming within the review, how important is reform of the way the SLCC is funded and operates?
Here Matthews doesn’t think the legislation is the problem, as budget setting has not previously led to controversy such as this year’s: there was more consultation before. “It distresses me that we’ve landed up where we have with the SLCC. I didn’t see this ever needed to happen, but happened it has. I would like to think that whatever the outcome of the present appeals, we can work together to get those outstanding complaints dealt with, however they are going to be dealt with at that stage. We still have a good working relationship.”
There has been a “tremendous response” from members to the Society’s appeal to take up the budget issue with their MSPs, though not even MSPs have the power to intervene. One item for the review may be whether the English model would be preferable; Matthews hears it is less costly for solicitors.
He also expresses concern for both complainers and practitioners if complaints are held up in the system. “I don’t know anyone who’s ever been complained against who doesn’t take it really seriously and lose sleep over it. So we’ve got to look at our members’ welfare as well in this. My experience of lawyers, again through the Client Protection Subcommittee, is they always assume the worst. If they get a complaint made against them they assume they are going to be struck off, but that’s a very rare thing to happen. We need to do something about these cases and move on.”
Regarding the level of optimism in the profession at present, Matthews sees this as varying from sector to sector, and in different parts of the country – with the Aberdeen area now beginning to pick up from the oil price slump.
“Looking elsewhere, in the last survey we did, about 60% were pretty optimistic going forward. There are clearly challenges in certain areas; Brexit affects some firms worse than others – to some it will make no difference whatsoever, others it’s a major problem for them. But they say there are no problems, only opportunities. I’m always pretty positive.”
For rural practice, he does raise the difficulty of persuading newly qualified staff to come and work. “I think we can still get trainees relatively easily, because there is still a surplus of Diploma graduates coming up to traineeships, but when it comes to getting young assistants coming to rural firms, we have more difficulty.
“What can the Society do to encourage more folk into rural areas? That’s a good question. Maybe it’s part of the education thing. If we’re widening access to the profession, maybe some of those folk will see their future longer term in rural Scotland rather than necessarily in the big cities.”
Again speaking for the high street, Matthews values the Society’s guidance on many issues (“the Professional Practice team are excellent”), its engagement with Registers of Scotland on issues such as rejections (“we’ve had a very good chat with them, and that’s very encouraging”), and work currently in hand on the Fourth Money Laundering Directive: a “huge challenge” because it will change the approach both of individual solicitors and the Society. “So the Society is doing a lot.”
Across the board
I ask whether it is more difficult for the Society to remain relevant across its membership, as people become more specialised, and more are working outside Scotland.
“I think it’s challenging, but it’s a challenge we’re up for. On the one hand there are more people working abroad, and a large number now working in London and elsewhere in England; but we can communicate with people more easily now, and it’s easier for them to communicate with us, and I think we can stay relevant but we just need to be aware of how people are living and working.”
Having become more aware as Vice President of the range of legal jobs these days, especially in-house, Matthews is a little baffled at last year’s Bank of Scotland report, from a survey of various occupations, that claimed that a certain section of lawyers were more unhappy than the unemployed. “That still really rankles with me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all my time as a lawyer and I just don’t understand why people are doing the job if they’re that unhappy. But I understand it’s the pressures they are under to hit fee targets. The message is, out in the rural economy of Scotland people don’t have fee targets, so there is plenty of work for those who maybe feel a bit stressed at the city stuff: there is an alternative career out there.”
Whatever the Society engages in at present is measured against the objectives in its Leading Legal Excellence strategy. That covers not only big projects such as legislation change, but member services, CPD (have you seen the new online content, he asks?), improving its website – and issues such as how it can improve the options for those returning from maternity or adoption leave. “We’re looking at proposals at the moment,” Matthews confirms. “We’ll hear about that hopefully in the next couple of months.”
Different outlook or not, one can perhaps detect the high street general adviser approach in Matthews’ comment: “Anything we can do really to make our members’ lives a bit easier, we’ll be doing.”
To watch a short video interview with Graham Matthews, go to www.journalonline.co.uk/Videos/1040.aspx