As is usual for new Law Society presidents at this time of year, I was thrown into the mix of 8,000 lawyers at the American Bar Association’s annual conference, the largest global gathering of lawyers after the International Bar Association’s annual conference. I arrived on American soil with a carefully planned programme of meetings with international bar leaders from countries including Australia, France, Japan and Mexico; and an onward ticket to Canada and the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference in Vancouver.
My 100-page briefing prepared me for the number of subjects I might be called on to discuss when abroad, not only the hot topic of alternative business structures, but also legal aid, outcomes-focused regulation, practice rights overseas, trade liberalisation, pro bono, corporate social responsibility and anti-money laundering.
The bar leaders with whom I spoke were particularly interested that I, as a legal aid lawyer, saw benefit in applying to convert my firm to an ABS, and my description of the application process also allowed me to bring to life some of the concepts behind ABSs that are easily misunderstood. Explaining through an interpreter COLPs (compliance officers for legal practice), COFAs (compliance officers for finance and administration) and entity regulation to the president of the Japanese bar association, whose members practise in a very different way to ours, made me realise how important it is to be able to articulate the principles behind the changes.
I was able to point out to our international colleagues that, although our traditional structure has proved a successful way of protecting the independence of solicitors and the interests of clients, it is certainly not the only way. The good reputation of the Law Society’s many in-house members is proof of this.
It was immediately clear to me in both Chicago and Vancouver that solicitors from England and Wales, and the Law Society are held in very high esteem across the globe. That is in large part because the standards of the profession are highly valued in the global commercial world. International colleagues also respect the regulatory role that we play. While both the American and Canadian bar associations are able to hold powerful debates on regulatory issues which influence state regulators, they are in fact voluntary organisations with no official regulatory function. They value the expertise we bring.
The prearranged meetings with a number of bar leaders, and informal discussions with many more, left me with the overwhelming impression that the issues that concern our jurisdiction also concern them. Leaders from jurisdictions where only lawyers are allowed to do legal work, and others who can control the number of lawyers qualifying in their jurisdiction, are nevertheless still concerned about the quest for effective and proportionate regulation, and access to justice.
I look forward to inviting many of these new friends and colleagues to the opening of the legal year ceremonies in London in October, and seeing them again at the International Bar Conference soon after that. The face-to-face discussions at international conferences are always vital to making new contacts, accessing new networks and exchanging views, but I do not want to leave it there. There is much to be achieved by sharing problems and solutions and continuing our discussions after conferences end.
I promised colleagues I would look into how we can link up in cyberspace. I hope to set up a special bar leaders online forum and am working with Law Society colleagues to make this happen. However, it was not until my flight home that I realised the additional value of spending time in North America while the Olympics was on. I am now an expert in water polo!
I hope one thing we can all agree on is the importance of good communication channels between the national body and members. Breaking down existing communication barriers is something we are working hard on. There is already the Professional Update that goes out on a Thursday and I am now writing a weekly newsletter to the profession. If you would like to subscribe, please email email@example.com – but it does work two ways.
Genuine conversation with and constructive criticism from our members will mean we can best represent your interests, provide you with products and services you find useful, and help share good ideas and best practice to cope with the challenges specific to the legal profession.
You can feed back to us through our regionally based relationship managers, and the meetings with me and my officeholder team, but you can also express your views, experiences and ideas through our LinkedIn debate ‘good ideas for hard times’ and our social media accounts such as twitter (@TheLawSociety). Of course, there is always the Gazette, which I read regularly, including the letters pages, and our section magazines have regular updates on what is happening. I would encourage you to contribute.
I would also like to draw your attention to the recently launched GazetteDaily Update, which is proving hugely popular and which incorporates feedback from members, including letters and web comments.
Although I, and the staff, have been busy over the summer, in some ways it feels that, come the new school year, the hard work really starts. I hope to meet many of you over the next few months so I can be sure that all our efforts at Chancery Lane are focused on what you want.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff is president of the Law Society