Seven decades of service
To mark the 70 years since 1949, we asked a solicitor from each decade to describe the challenges they faced in qualifying, the changes they have seen and what advice they have for those starting now
1940s: Anne Meikle
At the time I was studying, Dundee University was a constituent college of the University of St Andrews, through which I did my BL degree, although classes were held in Dundee. I did a three-year apprenticeship at a firm in Dundee where I was paid £20 for the first year, £40 for the second year and £60 for the third year.
I found the apprenticeship quite onerous as I had to attend classes before and after work. In those days there were not many lady lawyers and I kept being asked if I was going in for politics as a career.
I am now 91 and have been retired since I was 68. Things will have changed immeasurably since I left, most notably with the technological advances that have taken place. There were no computers or email in my day, and a lot of time was spent writing out title deeds by hand.
I’m unable to predict the future as I’m not even sure of what goes on at present! However, I like to recall a quote from the Gilbert & Sullivan opera, Iolanthe: “The law is the true embodiment of everything that
1950s: Kenneth Pritchard
I was brought up in Dundee in a legal family. While I was never overtly directed towards a legal career, there was, I suppose, an expectation that I would join the family firm. As a teenager, to earn a bit of pocket money I did menial tasks in the office and watched, when allowed, a partner meeting with a client. I decided to study law, and went to St Andrews University. I was admitted as a solicitor in 1955 but almost immediately was called up for National Service. On my discharge in 1957, I returned to the family firm. The sole partner then was my aunt, a lady of towering intellect. At that time, out of a total of 120 practising solicitors in Dundee, there were four ladies!
When I joined the profession, there was no requirement to hold professional indemnity insurance. But the consumer movement was well underway in the USA, and was likely to follow in the UK, which could have serious consequences for those who did not hold insurance against professional mistake.
After a lot of hurdles, in 1980 the Society became the first in the world to have compulsory professional insurance. In my view, it has been a boon and blessing to the profession.
For those about to join our profession, remember as a body we have a vocation “that is to help and serve others”. It is not always easy, as we have to be businesslike, but clients’ interests come first.
There is nothing more important to us than to maintain our independence, and any erosion of that independence must be resisted, not just by the professional bodies, but every member of our profession.
Equally, in the interests of justice legal aid, both civil and criminal must be available to those who need it, paid at a rate that makes it remunerative to solicitors and advocates who practise in those areas.
1960s: Robert Rennie
I graduated LLB from Glasgow University in 1967 and began an apprenticeship with Bishop Milne Boyd & Co (now incorporated in Brodies). There was no difficulty in securing an apprenticeship; there were no CVs and no isometric tests. Things were very formal: I was “Mr Rennie” and addressed my “masters” in the same manner. As an apprentice my work was revised, re-drafted (manually) and checked again. After I qualified, transactions I undertook were still checked for the first few months.
I practised in a high street firm for 30 years and for the next 17 in a large city firm. The most significant changes to my mind are:
- the technological changes in communication and production of documents;
- the necessity for professionals to specialise;
- the increase in laws affecting day-to-day life;
- the divergence between high street firms and large firms;
- economic factors such as competition and the ability of clients to hold lawyers (and professionals in general) to account.
My advice to someone starting out now is:
- do not undertake work beyond your comfort zone – a conveyancer should not undertake the defence of a murder accused;
- at the risk of boring a client, keep that client informed;
- above all, keep accurate records of meetings and telephone calls. In my experience, many negligence claims against solicitors are difficult to defend because these records do not exist.
As to the future, I foresee yet more accountability in the shape of an independent complaints body, and more economic consolidation.
1970s: Keith Allan
I attended Aberdeen University between 1970 and 1973, when I graduated with an ordinary LLB. Only a handful of my class of 80 graduated with Honours. It was challenging finding an apprenticeship but, as I later discovered, much more challenging for the five female graduates.
I was fortunate to be offered an apprenticeship with a sole practitioner in Aberdeen, where I received an early exposure to clients and a wide variety of work. There was little specialisation then. However, it was an interesting and educational firm and city in which to work, with solicitors all trusting each other and being helpful towards their fellow agents, particularly to the younger generation.
The main methods of communication comprised the landline telephone and Royal Mail. Communications back and forth could take a week or more, yet transaction deadlines were always met. Work was processed by manual typewriters (with carbon file copies); larger documents were prepared on a Gestetner (duplicating machine) stencil. Photocopiers had just arrived and involved manual feeding, one page at a time.
Some of the biggest changes since I qualified include the abolition of the Society’s table of fees, permission to advertise legal services, and also a change in the public’s attitude towards solicitors: in the 1970s it was very unusual for your advice or quality of service to be questioned.
I have just retired from Raeburn Christie Clark & Wallace following 46 years in the profession and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I have been lucky in that I have always worked with good business partners who became good friends, and achieved job satisfaction from (hopefully) providing a decent service to clients.
My advice to someone starting now would be to enjoy building good working relationships with your clients, remembering fondly those who appreciate what you do for them (still the majority) and accepting the challenge of persuading those less appreciative that you are doing your very best for them.
1980s: Lynda Towers
In the early 1980s I was a legal idealist, just out of the University of Edinburgh, where women were very much in the minority of law students, of whom most came from Edinburgh and lived at home. Life was a new legal adventure.
I qualified and went to be a conveyancer, but quickly realised it was not for me and moved in-house to the Office of the Solicitor to the Secretary of State for Scotland. It was a decision which, even on bad days, I never regretted. Once again women were in the minority. Other lawyers there were frighteningly committed, knowledgeable and expert in legislation and administrative law, as it was then. They were also very supportive, helpful and generous with their experience. I was never asked to make the tea. The same could not be said for some clients, who regularly assumed that as a woman I was the “administrative help”.
I was given huge, interesting opportunities way beyond what I had expected. I saw government working at first hand and was involved in making legislation and in court decisions some of which are still good law today. This allowed me to achieve rapid promotion. I saw no evidence of discrimination holding me back, contrary to some private sector colleagues. I even managed to fit in two children, and a further
one in the noughties.
My advice to young lawyers is to take all the opportunities you are offered. Your experience dictates what you can aspire to. I never dreamed in the early 1980s I would be Solicitor to the Scottish Parliament, even if I had predicted there would be a Scottish Parliament.
1990s: Ros McInnes
As a new lawyer I found it merry hell for the first year, but it has been very engaging since, on the whole. Like most young female solicitors, I lacked confidence. There is also a tension after years of education in continuing to learn in an environment which is only instrumentally interested in learning – not that auto-didacticism is a bad thing, so long as one is left to get on with it.
Young solicitors can’t usefully be regarded as the serfs or clones of their seniors – they have the right to develop at a reasonable pace. The 1990s were challenging in a variety of ways for this: a hungover 1980s culture playing out among big fish in small ponds, against a volatile financial background. Or more benevolently, perhaps just a lot of stressed, youngish people trying to exercise leadership skills for which they hadn’t always been trained on the even younger and equally stressed.
The biggest changes have been increased specialisation, greater speed of reaction and more lawyers in fewer firms. Unexpected survivors and unpredictable crashes.
Advice I would pass on: vet your hirers more closely than they vet you – try to use informational power to rebalance an unbalanced situation. Don’t give up on yourself too soon. Remember that strategy is fine, but much of life in the law is one big improvised soap opera. I speak as principal solicitor at BBC Scotland!
2000s: Ed Wright
A four-year gestation at Strathclyde University preceded my birth into the profession in 2003. The greatest hurdle was securing the still rare and alimentary traineeship. Thankfully, Sneddon & Son obliged, a small family firm in the relative backwater of Armadale, West Lothian. Like many children before, I took the best from that parentage and formed my own thoughts and resulting practice in a then stable private client market.
Nothing could have prepared any practitioner for the stark economic, digital and structural realities that followed the global economic collapse in the “credit crunch” of 2007-08. Over the year that followed, administrators, secretaries, paralegals, and associates, followed by partners of various firms across the country, became economic refugees. Black & McCorry started trading amidst that crisis.
An aftershock was the inception of alternative business structures south of the border in 2012. So called “Tesco law” provided the spread of risk and much needed capitalisation for our legal cousins. While Scotland narrowly avoided this new paradigm, we have been significantly affected by it in the years since.
The growth of legal firms in Scotland with practice and economic roots south of the border is evident. Other commercial interests have now congealed to provide legal services, estate agency, mortgage brokerage and more recently mortgage panel membership that digitally stands in the face of mortgage supply and potentially, via simple economics, the supply of all high street legal services in Scotland.
Overall, the digit lacks empathy or social understanding, and therein lies a conundrum for the new entrant. Social skills and empathy remain the keystones to effective practice. While concerned with the micro on their desk and efficient contribution towards the firm’s finances, recent history suggests the young solicitor should be aware of the macro of local up to global economic influences, and perhaps recognise that the digit, coupled with commercial interest can, and usually does, present social and economic dangers hidden within the cloud.
2010s: Emma Boffey
Ten years ago, Scotland’s legal profession began to feel the full effects of the global financial crisis: recession was biting and traineeships had, quite literally, dried up. I was one of the lucky ones that summer.
During my training at Dundas & Wilson, and early years of qualification after the CMS merger in 2014, I was kept immensely busy. I worked hard and tried to soak up the experience. I had the opportunity to learn from the best in my field and worked on some groundbreaking cases. There were immense highs: whether I was running to court, or running to the latest SYLA event (I was President 2014-16), there was never a dull moment. There were also, admittedly, lows: late nights, hard days in court and coming to terms with adverse decisions.
What I have learned is that change in the profession is constant. The defining aspect of this decade may be the pace of that change: how we did things even a year ago is different to how we do them now. The market has also changed forever: while familiar names have gone, the many mergers have created untold opportunities for Scotland’s young lawyers. Today they face the dilemma of how to maintain resilience to operate at a high level, in a 24/7 world which is constantly changing, and only turns off if you turn it off.
Of course you have to make it into the profession in the first place. I was trained by a supportive firm, which was blind to my background and ensured that any financial barriers to my qualification were removed. We still have much work to do to ensure that this experience becomes mainstream, to create a truly representative profession for the population we serve.
My advice to the next generation: work hard, keep learning and give back where you can along the way.