Our work needs to be informed by the views practitioners
This is my last opportunity to write to the profession as president of the Law Society, so I shall use this column to thank all those who have supported me over the past year and to reflect on the issues that seem most important as I hand over to my successor, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff.
When I started out last year, I emphasised the need for the Law Society to provide effective representation, at a time of major change, for a diverse profession which works in increasingly diverse professional environments. Change has, indeed, been the predominant theme during an extraordinary year in which to lead the profession. We have seen the new SRA Handbook come into force, the first non-lawyer-owned practices awarded ABS licences, massive cut-backs in civil legal aid come on to the statute book, and the beginning of the most comprehensive review of legal education and training in this country for more than a generation.
Like the profession, the Law Society has had to respond to change. It has made important improvements in its governance and management structure, appointed a talented new team of senior managers and extended the range of services it offers to members. I trust that these changes, coupled with our ongoing investment in IT, will support improved operational performance in both regulatory and representational activities and accelerate the delivery of many more improvements in products and services which we have planned.
We have kept a clear focus on improving professional standards and helping solicitors' practices to succeed in the ever more competitive domestic environment and rapidly globalising legal market. With the help of many colleagues, I have tried to help the Law Society to become a more respected, independent and influential voice in law and regulatory reform, by working hard on our relations with ministers, officials, regulators and bar organisations, in this country and internationally. We have, in fact, secured improvements to 44 separate pieces of legislation, and while the final contents of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act were not what we had hoped, we did secure numerous concessions and small amendments that will reduce the harm likely to be suffered by the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people affected by the act.
Internationally, we have worked to influence government and bar associations on market access and practice rights, pursuing market access for members through the global trade system, and lobbying the UK government and the EU. I have continued to travel overseas to promote the UK legal services industry and to reassure our international colleagues about the likely effects of alternative business structures.
Of course, not only foreign bars, but also many of our own members are concerned by the introduction of the new regulatory regime and the implications of non-lawyer ownership of firms and multi-disciplinary practices. For every entrepreneurial solicitor who sees opportunities arising from the new regime, there is another who understandably sees the prospect of large corporations entering the legal market as threatening the viability of an established practice. It would be wrong to pretend that there are no risks inherent in the liberalisation of law firm ownership, but if they are properly managed, as I believe they will be, there is a real prospect of our profession using the new freedoms to serve clients’ needs better than we do now. There is no reason why forward-looking and well-managed law firms, however they are structured, cannot compete in the new market, assisted by Law Society products and services, like our popular Risk and Compliance Service, our new Compliance Reference Group for COLPs and COFAs, and accreditations such as Lexcel and the Conveyancing Quality Scheme.
Throughout my time as an office holder I have had at the forefront of my mind the need to build engagement with our members in all parts of the profession. I am delighted that we have this year founded new communities for advocacy and solicitor judges, and are now moving on to launch sections for family law, equality and diversity and, later this year, in-house practitioners. I am sure this theme will continue to run through our work. I believe, for example, that we need to do more to serve the specific professional concerns of solicitors practising in Wales.
There is no lack of understanding within the Society of the issues facing the profession and no shortage of ideas for helping the profession to succeed, but the very diversity of the profession poses a significant risk of initiative overload. We cannot achieve what the profession needs without strength in depth right across the board. That demands, in my view, that more of us commit time and effort to the Society’s work, whether on law reform, professional standards or member services. Many hundreds of solicitors already engage in the Society’s Council, boards, committees and working groups, but we are not yet at a stage where one can say with confidence that all our work is as fully informed as it should be by the views of those practitioners which it most affects.
The Society’s staff, however able and committed themselves, cannot supply that vital practitioner perspective and we all need to make a contribution to ensure that it is fed in. I have no doubt that to achieve this we need to tie our work on law reform, regulation, professional standards and member services more closely to our communities of practitioners.
It has been a privilege to serve as president for the past year and to represent such a hard-working and committed profession. I have had the good fortune to meet many hundreds of solicitors, from all parts of the profession, during the three years I have been an office holder, not to mention lawyers, ministers and officials from all over the world. I have continually been impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm that solicitors demonstrate to the clients they serve, in the face of what seems like a constant barrage of new challenges. The willingness of our profession to adapt to the changing needs of clients and the ever tougher dynamics of the market is exemplary, and I have no doubt that we remain at the leading edge of developments in legal practice globally.
I wish Lucy Scott-Moncrieff every success and am sure she will be an outstanding president of the Law Society. I am delighted that, after the end of my presidential term, I shall have the opportunity to continue to serve the profession as chair of the Law Society’s Education and Training committee, dealing with all the vital issues that will be thrown up by the regulators’ legal education and training review.
John Wotton is president of the Law Society