Historic is perhaps an over-used term but the latest meeting of the Law Society’s governing council was precisely that, taking place as it did within hours of the inauguration of I. Stephanie Boyce. Our first president of colour, I. Stephanie is joined by Lubna Shuja as vice president. Lubna will become president in October 2022.
Not only that, but this the first time we will have two consecutive women presidents in our history. So, much to celebrate and congratulations to both of them punctuated the contributions of council members throughout the session of 23 March.
In her inaugural speech, I. Stephanie Boyce said: ‘This is a time of change for solicitors, for their organisations, and for the country. But while solicitors can and do play the role of the trusted adviser, we can also be a force for change. The door is open, and the trail is ready to be blazed.’
Council’s enthusiastic response to this underpins the significance of this moment – an opportunity for optimism despite the difficulties of recent months.
Because Stephanie and Lubna take office during very challenging times – for the country, for our sector and for our clients. And Law Society CEO Paul Tennant told Council how we have continued to engage with both the internal and external challenges presented by the Covid pandemic.
In February, we began to prepare for the gradual easing of Covid restrictions. Our internal Covid working group met the day after the prime minister announced his new road map for a return to normality. This will consider the potential phasing of any return to the office, and our longer-term ways of working.
Externally, we are in regular contact with HM Courts & Tribunals Service, including a weekly court safety meeting allowing us to raise the concerns our members are expressing to us.
We updated the guidance and support available for firms and members on our website following the announcement of a new national lockdown in England at the beginning of 2021 and tougher restrictions in place in Wales. We liaised closely with government departments to secure further clarification and confirmation that our members, who act as key workers in England by attending court and fulfilling legal obligations, will continue to be treated as such.
Our website contains the latest guidance on these measures - as well as the local lockdown blueprint and mechanics of closing deals virtually (virtual execution and electronic execution).
On business support measures, we joined calls suggesting that business support should be commensurate with the scale of the restrictions imposed.
Meanwhile, clauses allowing the breach of international law were removed from the Internal Market Bill in December, following progress in the negotiations regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU and following a successful Law Society campaign on the issue, which saw more than 5,000 people write to their MP using our campaign action to raise concerns regarding the proposals.
During the quarter we have had 82 citations by parliamentarians. In January, the Law Society was positively mentioned in parliament 19 times (8 times in social media and 11 times in Hansard). These mentions were in connection with our work on access to justice, the rule of law and the international practice of law.
During January we gave oral evidence to two select committees. Our head of justice, Richard Miller, gave oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee as part of two inquiries on court capacity and the future of legal aid. Our head of international, Mickael Laurens gave oral evidence to the House of Lords EU Services Sub-Committee on the legal services sector and areas of concern for future trade.
We made a full submission to HM Treasury ahead of the Budget. In our submission, we have set out a comprehensive package of recommendations designed to support firms and solicitors through the pandemic and beyond. We have engaged with Treasury officials following the submission and are currently scoping campaign activity to highlight our asks on stamp duty land tax (SDLT) and small business support.
Since the announcement of the EU – UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), we have been replacing earlier guidance with up-to-date versions on our website. These updates relate to provision of legal services, data adequacy rules, VAT, AML and IP law. We also ran a social media advertising campaign targeting members and firms and promoting our end of transition guidance.
In January, we ran six webinars on end of transition ranging from family law and commercial judgments to immigration and competition law. These webinars have attracted a wide number of members, from 240 – 600 per session.
We have communicated our initial reactions to government and parliament through meetings with the lord chancellor, ongoing communication with officials at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and a briefing to MPs and peers ahead of the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill.
Our Brussels office is leading on influencing the EU’s approach to Lugano and they are focused on emphasising how UK participation on Lugano is not just in the interests of the UK or UK legal service providers, but in the interests of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and consumers.
Our Global Legal Centre campaign continues to focus on specific audiences, and we have been promoting our ‘Jurisdiction of Choice’ report to key stakeholders in target areas.
Focus on members
For our members, much of our work has continued to focus on member safety and our 3Rs – ‘reset, resilience and recovery’ – campaign which to date has made significant impact. As a result of our work, in collaboration with our SII colleagues:
- Over £500 million public spending was allocated from the Treasury to the justice system as part of the 1-year spending review;
- The Ministry of Justice’s budget was protected for 2021 and the chancellor announced an above inflation increase of more than 4%.
- During second lockdown (and now in areas with tier four restrictions) BEIS and the MoJ agreed that law firms could remain open, solicitors could travel to work, solicitors could meet clients in law firms and visit vulnerable clients at home; and
- Almost 220 solicitors facing redundancy or employment related challenges benefited from the Law Society’s career clinics and gave positive feedback on the service.
We increased communications and guidance to members and firms to supporting them in adapting to the end of transition over December and January. Our resources, which we promoted through newsletters and social media, included a dedicated web hub, guidance on 13 different specific topics, detailed guides on ten key countries, seven pre-transition webinars on relevant areas of law, and six post-transition webinars focussing on the content of the TCA (this last series had had 1,537 attendees).
On 19 October, we launched our pilot digital community to 5,000 small firm members. ‘Law Society Connect’ is a place where small firm members can meet, share best practice, learn from peers, collaborate on common challenges and innovate. We have exceeded our three-month registration target and now have 505 registered users.
Learning & development
Law Society Learning (our new learning management system (LMS)) has performed well since launch in November 2020. CQS 2020 has been received well by the membership.
We also released newly designed e-learning content to market in December, which has had a good reception. These modules targeted three key cohorts – junior lawyers, in-house, and compliance specialists – and the AML modules have been particularly well-received.
Internally, as well as adapting to support our members during these extraordinary times our focus has been on supporting the wellbeing of staff - managing work-life balance and physical and mental well-being. In addition, with the re-tightening of restrictions in December, we have encouraged and supported flexible work patterns for staff with childcare and other caring responsibilities.