Departing Law Society President Fiona Woolf explains why she believes the legal profession is more than prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead
Sadly, this is my last ‘President’s Podium’. In the past 12 months, I have met with thousands of solicitors and visited hundreds of firms – including 98 of the top 100 firms and another 25 or so beyond that. I have to say that I was very impressed with what I saw. I believe we are profession which is flourishing, a profession which is dynamic, innovative and in many respects at the cutting edge.
I am delighted to have met so many of the top firms. I found them all to be very different but keen to engage with the Law Society. They had a huge number of ideas about what we should be doing for them. I know Andrew Holroyd, the incoming President, is keen to cement the blossoming relationships with our biggest firms.
One issue which quickly emerged from my visits was the Great Quality of Working Life Debate. Last month, I hosted a debate at Chancery Lane where we heard from the Lord Mayor and representatives from Allen & Overy and KMPG on issues ranging from quality of supervision to human relations at work. I was happy with that focus. Given the media work that I had to do regarding stress in large law firms, I could say that solicitors are very much on the case. For those who were unable to attend, a video will be available on the Law Society website next week, featuring a couple of the speakers discussing some of the key issues which arose during the entire project.
I do not need to look into a crystal ball to tell you that one of our greatest challenges ahead lies in preparing for the arrival of alternative business structures (ABSs). Many firms I have met see this as an opportunity, especially those with volume businesses and those that would benefit from taking non-lawyers on board. Indeed, I sensed a degree of impatience and I was urged to work with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to develop the licensing rules at an early stage.
As far as external capital and equity investment were concerned, there was some degree of indifference and waiting to see what others would do. But the big issue for everyone is obviously what the new non-lawyer entrants to the legal services market will do. Our ABS forum events have been welcomed across the board and there are more to come in the autumn – the website has the details on these.
The Society will clearly have to keep the profession informed of developments and help everyone get ahead of the potential competition.
In the Legal Services Bill there is no doubt that we will achieve a piece of legislation we can live with, even though we still have a little way to go. Of course, it is all going to depend on how the reforms are implemented and I have already attended meetings with the government on exactly this issue. After the Royal Assent in the autumn, we must prepare energetically for the advent of the legal services board.
This leads me to another innovation for the Society, which has been to set up a service to look at regulation from the profession’s point of view. Not only do we respond to SRA consultations, we have pro-actively pursued issues for the profession. Now that the new Code of Conduct (which moves us to principles-based regulation) has been brought into force, we are inviting comments on how the code and the guidance could be improved on (email email@example.com).
It is great to be President when the Treasury does a series of u-turns after months of frustrating lobbying on the Third Money Laundering Directive. I shall never forget the moment when, after lobbying the then Attorney-General, he told me to expect a meeting with Ed Balls. The meeting itself was a real vindication of an effort involving our own teams, the City firms and close co-ordination with the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners and other bodies. Of course, there is still more to do.
Legal aid has been another big issue to contend with. I believe that we are now more credible and creative as a result of the economic analysis, the lobbying in Parliament and the media work – this will stand us in good stead as we negotiate with the new legal aid minister.
My parting thought has to be what a privilege and honour it has been to lead such a vibrant profession. And with so much to recognise and celebrate, I am thrilled that the first ever Law Society Excellence Awards will be presented this year to the leaders and innovators of the profession.
Developed to recognise and promote excellence, the awards will be presented for innovation, quality of life, equality and diversity, social responsibility, practice standards, solicitor of the year, and new solicitor of the year. The awards ceremony will be a prestigious black-tie dinner in London on 25 October. Details and an entry form can be found at www.awards.lawsociety.org.uk
It really has been an amazing experience.
Fiona Woolf is the outgoing Law Society President