The outgoing president of the Law Society talks to Jonathan Rayner about the key challenges of her tenure
It was a fitting end to a year’s presidency that has witnessed unprecedented changes in the way legal services are funded and delivered. On 1 July, just 10 days before she is to step down, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff was able to tell the profession that government has at last bowed to Law Society pressure and agreed to retain client choice at the heart of the criminal legal aid system.
It was perhaps the key challenge of her tenure and one she met with aplomb. But how did it come to this, with someone who describes herself as a ‘north London legal aid lawyer’ confronting the government and, in the eyes of some at least, winning? To begin almost at the beginning, some 26 years ago, upon the birth of her first son, Scott-Moncrieff founded what is now the virtual law firm Scomo. Today, the firm has more than 50 consultants, undertakes both legal aid and privately funded work, and has just become an alternative business structure so that ‘its lawyers can buy shares and have a stake in the firm’s future’, she says.
She was elected to the council of the Law Society in 2002 and 10 years later became its senior office-holder. That year is now drawing to a close. Looking back, criminal legal aid notwithstanding, what other challenges have reared their heads during her 12 months in office? She responds with a roll call of the usual suspects: ABSs; major new entrants, such as the Co-op; the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act; the RTA Portal; the small claims limit uplift; changes to employment law and tribunal procedures; and the Jackson reforms.
Scott-Moncrieff adds: ‘And the high street is having an even worse time now than it was 12 months ago.’ So the government’s concession over criminal client choice apart, her presidency could be described as one of unremitting gloom? ‘Far from it,’ she replies. She talks about the international work that the Society undertakes on behalf of City firms and other members. This includes taking members abroad, usually as part of trade missions with the prime minister or lord mayor of London, where they can make useful business contacts; and also lobbying and negotiating in an effort to open up jurisdictions abroad that members are having difficulty accessing. ‘Sometimes we are successful, as when this year we signed memoranda of understanding with South Korea and Brazil,’ she says. ‘Other times we were less successful, but we keep on trying.’
The ‘central purpose’ of her own travels, she says, was to engage with lawyers and law societies around the world – and in the process discover the ‘very high regard in which our lawyers, legal system and judiciary are held’. She gives the example of a Singaporean lawyer, who said: ‘Fifteen years ago we decided to set up in arbitration. We simply copied what the UK was doing and have been very successful ever since.’ Another example was a dual-qualified lawyer in Brazil who told her: ‘I always advise my clients to take their disputes to England and Wales. That way we can be sure they will be settled within 20 years.’
That’s great for international law firms, but what about the grassroots – the high street lawyers in such dire straits, for instance? She responds: ‘We launched "good ideas for bad times", a crowd-sourcing initiative based on the profession’s reputation for creativity in the face of challenging times. The idea was to pool some firms’ excellence at marketing, for example, with other firms’ good practice management or networking skills. It all depended upon a willingness to share ideas and learn from others.’The culmination of this initiative was the Law Firm Marketing Toolkit, a hot-off-the-press book published by the Society.
What else has she done to help the high street? ‘There is a huge amount of unmet need out there,’ she replies, ‘which is a business opportunity for enterprising law firms, including those on the high street. The need is there because some consumers are afraid of consulting lawyers because we are perceived to be too expensive, or because our letterheads or offices are intimidating, or because they simply don’t know what we do.
‘We have been encouraging smaller firms to meet this challenge head on by promoting their services in a different way – through social media, for instance, which is familiar to a broad and younger consumer base. And it is a cheaper way of marketing than other media, such as newspaper advertisements or local radio. Reducing overheads in this or any other way can mean the service itself is less expensive too, of course, which makes it easier to sell to prospective clients.’ She adds that, at admission ceremonies, she often tells young lawyers they have ‘much to offer their firms, not least in tactfully advising older colleagues on how to use social media, such as Facebook’.
The slashing of legal aid has affected everyone from sole practitioners and high street firms to larger firms with multiple offices. Can Scott-Moncrieff tell us more about the challenge to the government’s plan to deprive accused persons of the right to choose who represents them in criminal proceedings? She responds by quoting a letter that she sent to the Society’s council members. She wrote: ‘The Society has composed, and discussed with criminal law practitioners groups, a properly evidenced and considered alternative approach (to that proposed by justice secretary Chris Grayling). Our approach would shelve price-led competitive tendering (for criminal legal aid contracts), retain the importance of clients being able to choose their solicitors and, in doing so, maintain strong incentives for sufficient quantity and quality of legal advice and representation.’
She added that the proposal would introduce a system of contracting for criminal legal aid ‘broadly akin’ to that for GP surgeries, where a ‘contract is retained subject to periodic review so long as certain statutory and mandatory obligations are met.’ However, this was ‘only the beginning,’ she said, ‘of a wider process of intensive discussion (with the justice secretary) around the future of criminal legal aid.’
SCHOOL Primary schools across the globe until the age of 10; boarding school at St Mary’s Calne, Wiltshire; Guildford Technical College
UNIVERSITY University of Kent, College of Law (Guildford); articles at London firm in Temple
JOBS Criminal law at two London firms; established her own firm in 1987
Readers’ comments in the Gazette have been mixed, with some saying that the Society has achieved a real victory for access to justice, while others accuse the Society of failing to consult with the wider profession by conspiring with the larger firms to exclude smaller firms from criminal legal aid. How does Scott-Moncrieff respond to such a serious charge?It was genuinely a ‘team effort’, she insists, because although the proposed alternative model is the Law Society’s, it was only formulated after discussion with interested groups, including the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, Big Firms Group, Bar Council and Criminal Bar Association.
On a more general note, how does she react to comments, sometimes posted on the Gazette website, which can be personally critical? She replies: ‘Where the (justice secretary’s) U-turn is concerned, responses that purport to come from criminal lawyers show evidence that no attempt has been made to read what we are proposing. Assumptions are leapt to, knees are jerked and the saddest assumption of all is that the Law Society is against them. As I’ve said before in the pages of the Gazette, why not contact me rather than rage at me?’
Scott-Moncrieff also addresses the sometimes controversial creation of Law Society divisions that could be viewed as direct rivals to long-established bodies such as the Commerce & Industry (C&I) Group and the Sole Practitioners’ Group (SPG). She replies: ‘We are trying to plug a gap. Where C&I is concerned, some in-house practitioners work for small companies and can feel quite excluded. We are offering a lifeline. Similarly, our Small Firms Division goes further than the SPG because it is open to everyone who works in small firms, not just sole practitioners. We think the SPG model is anachronistic.’
She has survived a hectic year. So what is next? ‘I’m having a holiday,’ she answers, ‘although as immediate past-president I am expected to make myself available to my successor, Nick Fluck, if he needs my help – which I’m sure he won’t. My practice manager at Scomo has a list of issues that I’ll have to get my teeth into soon. I’m also becoming chair of the Society’s equality and diversity committee, sitting on the International Bar Association’s new legal aid and access to justice committee, and continuing, in the interests of continuity, existing conversations with the Ministry of Justice. And I’ll be returning to my old job as a fee-paid judge on mental health review tribunals.’
So there is to be no rest for Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, then. Looking back on the year, what does she remember most vividly? ‘The banquet at Buckingham Palace,’ she replies, ‘which was a novel experience for a legal aid practitioner from north London.’ She also enjoyed the ‘macro-level engagement with government’ – in particular, the possibility of persuading the justice secretary that there is a better way than price-competitive tendering for criminal legal aid. Most of all, she enjoyed going around the country meeting the membership, some of whom were ‘friendly, some hostile’.
She says: ‘Many still haven’t grasped what we are doing. They haven’t moved on from the days when the Society was both a representative and a regulatory body, and when a letter or visit from us was like being swooped upon by the Inland Revenue or police – and was sure to be expensive.’
- Law Firm Marketing Toolkit (Law Society Publishing, £49.95) is available from the Law Society Bookshop or tel: 0870 850 1422.