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A worthwhile job

17 June 19

Taking up office as the Society’s President, Falkirk criminal defence lawyer John Mulholland wants to stay grounded in practice – and members to feel free to approach him to discuss issues of the day

by Peter Nicholson

"I just wanted to do a job that I thought was worthwhile, and also challenging. It’s no more complicated than that!”

Some Law Society of Scotland Presidents came into the law almost by accident; others have seen it as their calling almost from the word go. John Mulholland, who has just taken up office for the 2019-20 term, belongs to the latter camp.

With no family background in the law, he was influenced rather by the TV depictions of a lawyer’s life. “They all looked very glamorous. It’s not glamorous now, but it looked like a job that was worthwhile, that was important to people.”

For someone who trained in Cumbernauld and practised in criminal defence in Glasgow, then for the last 20 years or so in Falkirk, it’s a fair enough summary. One that Mulholland follows up with: “Even after all this time I still think it’s a fairly important thing to be doing: it helps to keep the balance between the prosecution and the rights of the accused, and it’s important that people are there to do it.”

Experienced

Likewise with the Society, there is no great story to how this somewhat unassuming Council member, now in his third term, first became involved. “The constituency seat came up. At our local faculty we discussed putting up a candidate; I put my name forward and was backed. I’m just humbled that I continue to enjoy the support of the local faculty.”

With no great fuss, he has taken on a fair bit of work in the seven years since he joined. A member of the Appeals & Reviews Subcommittee, he has also convened the Nominations Committee and the Finance Committee, served as treasurer for three years and has sat on the board since 2015. So it fits the pattern that he let his name go forward some 18 months ago for the position of Vice President, which has led in turn to his new role.

“In terms of seniority there aren’t that many members who have more experience on Council, so I thought it important that I had the right level of experience to consider standing,” he observes.

Common bond

Becoming Vice President, as those who have held that office invariably find, has been an experience in itself. “I’ve got to say it has been the highlight of my professional career so far,” Mulholland enthuses. “It’s been fantastic: I’ve been involved in so many different things, in meeting lots of different people and organisations. It’s really taken me to places which I wouldn’t encounter in my normal practice area.”

What has he learned about the Society’s members around the country? “If I didn’t already know, I’ve learned how strong the profession is, how despite the fact that there are so many diverse areas there is still a very strong collegiate atmosphere in the profession. From the big firms to the high street I think we all take great pride in the fact that we are Scottish solicitors, and that appears to be the case wherever you go, and irrespective of the sectors you are practising in or the size of the firm. That’s a fantastic strength for us to have.”

A legal aid lawyer himself, he has not been surprised to find that is one of the issues most frequently raised in local faculty visits. “Amongst the court practitioners it is still very important, although we have opened a dialogue with the Government and we did get an increase in the fees, and also a commitment from the Government to have a panel which will regularly look at the fees. We hope it will come to the conclusion that we still need an increase, because the fees aren’t where they should be for the work that we do. I don’t just mean on the criminal side; I know from my day-to-day contacts with colleagues on the civil side that they are also very concerned. They are doing tremendously important work around domestic abuse, families, child care issues, so they have a really difficult job as well, and are equally concerned about the fees they get in return.”

What does the Society hope will result from the current working group review, on which it is represented? “We hope the Government will realise that the fees should continue to increase at least to keep pace with the cost of living and inflation, and try and take us back to where we were a number of years ago, because we have fallen quite far behind.” And he hopes that, going forward, there will be some independent voice when it comes to recommending future fee levels.

AML best practice

For many members, the Society has more impact as regulator, and the additional monitoring recently built on to the anti-money laundering regime has not had a warm reception. But as Mulholland observes, the alternatives would likely have been less palatable. “The profession as a whole never welcomes additional regulation, and it’s fair to say that has been the reaction. However the Society providing the AML regime is the best way forward, because otherwise it would potentially have been a regulator outwith Scotland which would have had the power to come in and investigate our firms.”

Indeed, he points out, the Society has been held up as an example of best practice by the Treasury. “Our very own Ian Messer, our director of Financial Compliance, was chosen to be chair of the Legal Services Affinity Group, which is made up of all the legal sector AML regulators across the UK. That’s a key interface with the Treasury on this issue. So we think the profession trust us to make sure they comply, and of course our job as a Society is to make compliance by our members as easy as possible, and we’ve gone quite a long way to doing that.”

Reaching 2020

Taking a more strategic view, next year will see the conclusion of the Society’s five year plan Leading Legal Excellence. What is the likely outturn compared with the goals it set itself?

Membership has exceeded expectations, Mulholland reveals: it has just passed the 12,000 mark, “a year earlier than we had hoped, which is a fantastic achievement”. In addition, “We’re still a respected and influential voice at home and abroad, and it goes back to the confident and positive discussions we’re having with Government about public policy and legal aid. Recently our colleagues at the Zambia Law Association have asked that their chief executive can come for three weeks and see how we operate, as an example of a Society that is working very well, so we’ve gone quite far towards the ambitions that we set. 

“We could do more of course; one of the things we want to try and build on is to increase investment opportunities, to give more commercial income to the Society, which we hope ultimately will also have a positive effect on the practising certificate fee.”

Naturally there will be a successor plan, which while still at the embryonic stages will have to factor in the possible new landscape proposed by the Roberton review, with a new single regulator taking on that side of the Society’s and the other legal professional bodies’ work.

However, it is not something the Society will readily accept. “Our view is that that would be effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Mulholland confirms. “The Society has had decades of experience in terms of education and training, and regulation; our solicitors enjoy a very high level of client satisfaction and Roberton’s proposal would appear to be disproportionate in terms of our relationship with the Scottish public, so we hope that the discussions we are having with the Government will lead to it considering an alternative. We want to continue to educate and train our own members and continue to have a strong regulatory regime.”

Did Roberton not consider that her blueprint represented the direction of travel for professional regulation, and is the Society not just protecting its own interests in holding out against it?

“We are here to work in the interests of the public and the profession, and our considered view has been that the main Roberton proposal is disproportionate,” Mulholland responds. “Not only does it not serve us; our view is that it doesn’t serve the people of Scotland either. They have a high level of trust in us, a high level of satisfaction in the services we provide, so there doesn’t appear to be any underlying evidence which would support such a radical change in the regulatory regime. Particularly in relation to the provision of legal services there are also rule of law issues, and independence is crucial to that, so we would be very concerned that the regulator of legal services might not necessarily be as independent as it should be.”

Ten more years?

With the Society now marking its 70th anniversary, does he see it remaining in its present form for another decade?

“That’s my hope; however, there will be changes, some of which we have asked the Government to look at because we think we can always be better. We identified some difficulties in the present regulatory regime which we asked the Government to improve. So we can always be better, and we can be better solicitors to serve the people of Scotland better. 

“One of the big issues we want the Government to consider is protection of the expression ‘lawyer’, because we are almost certain that is causing confusion in the public: somebody who goes to see a ‘lawyer’ isn’t necessarily aware that they don’t have the protections that are in place for a client who consults a Scottish solicitor. I think they responded to that very positively.”

Apart from Roberton, what does he see as the Society’s main focus over the coming year?

“I’m very hopeful that we will continue to consider issues such as access to the profession, diversity and particularly the issue of wellbeing among our members. If our individual solicitors are well supported, and can identify issues that are affecting them, that will benefit everyone: their organisations but also the people they represent and serve.” 

Bend my ear

Despite his commitments, Mulholland himself still tries to use non-working time to maintain his wellbeing. “I still play football on a Friday night, for the Glasgow Bar Association team – big mention to them! Well, I say I play – I turn up and get maybe a cameo 15 minutes at the end. It feeds into the whole wellbeing thing: we now play in the SFA’s over 35s league, which they set up to encourage people to be physically fit. And if you try and become more physically fit, inevitably you are more mentally fit as well. That can only be a good thing. Although the number of dinners you have to go to as President is a difficulty! 

“I’m also a qualified rugby referee; I do that on a Saturday morning. It’s also just part of trying to keep fit.”

Perhaps used to being shouted at from the sidelines, Mulholland is not about to remove himself from the world of practice during his presidential term. “I’ll continue to practise every day, so the membership will see me out and about. I hope that I’ll be approachable, and they will feel comfortable coming up to me to ask about what’s happening, or if they have an issue, bringing it to my attention. I’ll try and make sure that it gets to the right person. Or suggestions for improvement to try and make the job of Scottish solicitor easier. Whether it’s about what we’re doing well, or not doing so well, I want members to be able to come to me.

“I do believe there is a positive message for the profession – it’s not all doom and gloom!”  

For a brief video interview with John Mulholland, see www.journalonline.co.uk/videos/

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