Welcome to our annual report covering the period from 1 November 2018 to 31 October 2019.
As the professional body for over 12,000 Scottish solicitors, we have an overarching objective of leading legal excellence. We strive to excel and to be a world-class professional body, understanding and serving the needs of our members and the public.
As well as representing and regulating our members, we also have an important statutory duty to work in the public interest. It is a responsibility entrusted to us by parliament and one we take extremely seriously. We are passionate about maintaining and improving professional standards, ensuring the clients of solicitors are protected whenever things go wrong. We benefit enormously from the volunteerism of hundreds of solicitors and non-solicitors who give their time, knowledge and expertise without remuneration to ensure sound regulatory decisions are taken.
Our annual report covers our performance against the objectives set out in our 2018/19 annual plan. This was the fourth year of activity under our Leading Legal Excellence strategy.
If you have any questions about the content of our annual report, please get in touch.
I wish you a very warm welcome to the Society’s Annual Report. Whilst this report covers our previous financial year ending on 31 October 2019, we publish it at a time of extreme financial challenge for the legal sector. The global outbreak of coronavirus pandemic resulted in the suspension of courts and a sudden halt to the property market. We know firms have been furloughing staff and deferring traineeships as they seek to control costs. The long-term consequences of this virus are far from certain. The outbreak has inevitably and dramatically changed our planning for next year. Our priority is to do all we can to support and guide our 12,000 members through these difficult and unprecedented times.
Throughout 2018-19, the review and reform of legal services regulation in Scotland continued to play a major part in our work, following the publication of the Legal Services Review Report at the end of our last operating year. We continued to advocate for change that will better serve the public and the profession than the creation of single regulator of legal services, one of the report’s main recommendations. We embarked upon an extensive engagement programme with our members, stakeholders, other professional bodies and MSPs on this issue. We also sit on the Scottish Government’s working group whose aim it is to reach a consensus on models which will deliver reforms to legal services regulation. We expect the agreed models to be put out to consultation by the middle of this year.
Brexit, of course, continued to play an important part in our conversations with our members. We provided advice and guidance throughout the year, as well as producing a series of webinars looking at the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on Scots law and legal practice. As we move through the transition period, we will continue to support our members, providing guidance and sharing relevant information and publications that may be of interest.
On the subject of legal aid, we welcomed the 3% rise in fees in April 2019. However it is imperative that this is seen as a short term rise and a step towards a more appropriate rate of remuneration for solicitors. We are determined to ensure that legal aid provides individuals across Scotland with access to a range of legal services from local and independent experts when they are at their most vulnerable. Building a fairer and simpler legal aid system is essential, and in our response to the Scottish Government consultation on legal aid reform, we highlighted the importance of making the legal aid system more efficient and easier to navigate for members of the public and solicitors alike.
In 2019 we also launched the first ever sector wide survey on mental health in Scotland, in partnership with See Me, the national programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination. I was delighted to see such a high level of engagement and response rate from the profession, with over 2000 individuals agreeing to participate, telling us that this is a subject that we should continue to invest in and develop our Lawscot Wellbeing offering in response to. The full results will be published later this year.
It has been an immense honour to have been both Vice President and President throughout our 70th anniversary celebrations. A particular highlight was the privilege of presenting our Journal cover competition winners with their prizes in July – their artistic talents were fantastic. I also had the honour of presiding over the re-dedication of the Paisley ‘Snail in a Bottle’ commemorative plaques, the case which laid the foundations of the modern law of negligence. 70 years is a tremendous milestone for an organisation that now boasts over 12,000 members, and we continue to be respected and admired both at home, and on the global stage.
I would like to sign off by saying thank you. Thank you to all members of Council, committees and working groups for all your hard work benefitting the profession, civic Scotland and the public interest. The value of our volunteers is immeasurable.
When I joined the Law Society as chief executive in 2009, the legal sector was working hard to recover from the financial crisis that emerged from the previous two years. At time of publication of this report, our profession faces another historic challenge. The global coronavirus pandemic has required flexibility, resilience and innovation from our members across Scotland and beyond . There is huge uncertainty as to what the future holds both economically and socially. We do not know when normality will return and what normal will look like when it does.
At the Law Society, we have responded by looking carefully at our own costs, furloughing staff through the UK Government Job Retention Scheme, freezing staff recruitment and re-balancing our budgets to reduce discretionary spend. Meanwhile, our staff continue to work with our President and Council to provide members with a wide package of support and guidance. We have a clear statutory objective to ensure Scotland has a strong, varied and effective legal profession. This will remain our top priority over the coming year.
2019 will remain in my memory for a long time, being the year that we celebrated our 70th anniversary, which ran concurrently with the nationwide celebration of 100 years of women in law, a project marking the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which paved the way for women to become lawyers for the first time. What a privilege it was to play my part in our profession’s professional body during this momentous year.
Back in January, we kicked our platinum celebrations off by welcoming over 200 women to our offices at Atria One to have their photograph taken as part of the First 100 Years project. Further events followed throughout the year culminating in our platinum themed annual conference in October.
While not quite meeting all of our ambitious membership growth targets, our numbers did increase across all categories, with practising members surpassing the 12,000 mark for the first time. We also increased our Accredited Paralegal and Student Associate membership categories and launched two new categories – Legal Technologists and Fellows, the latter for retired members.
Our work on accredited specialisms, has resulted in a 5% increase in the number of members who hold accredited specialisms. We also received a significant number of enquiries for the creation of new specialisms, indicating greater awareness of the scheme and the benefits it offers our members. I will be watching with interest to see how this work develops in 2020.
We continue to take our responsibilities as an anti-money laundering (AML) supervisor extremely seriously and made significant progress against the objectives we set out for ourselves in response to our 2018 review by the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision (OPBAS). This included the implementation of a fully risk-based approach to AML supervision, strengthening our AML governance structure, setting up an AML ‘Reporting Concerns’ helpline, providing further AML training for internal colleagues and strengthening our enforcement powers.
Our digital transformation journey continued, and all our regulatory and governance committees now use our secure online portal to receive and share documentation. Internal reporting processes were also improved and financial reporting dashboards developed. We will continue to seek ways to use digital technology to make ourselves more efficient and effective as we go forward into our next operating year.
We delivered a major project to integrate the Journal Online website into our own, improving the way in which we are able to share news, updates and information with our members.
Our social mobility charity, the Lawscot Foundation, secured two new major sponsors and welcomed eight new students to the scheme, bringing the total number of students it now supports to 25. Another particularly exciting development in the area of social mobility was our partnership with Rare. We worked with them to launch a pilot contextualised recruitment system to help improve the chances for less-advantaged young people to get into their dream career in the legal sector.
As ever, the many achievements of the past year have only been possible with the efforts of my colleagues – a diligent, hardworking and committed team - for which I thank them all. I take immense pride in leading such a dedicated team and am grateful for their continued support.