Foreword from our President and Chief Executive
The Law Society has a unique role in Scotland. We are a key regulator that sets and enforces standards for a profession which helps people in need. We support and care for our hard-working members. We provide a voice that represents our members and wider society when it speaks out on human rights and the rule of law. We are an influencer on changes to legislation and the operation of our justice system. We also work with our schools and universities on legal education.
This role is constantly evolving. It is why our ‘leading legal excellence’ strategy, published in 2015, was a prospectus for change in the organisation. Over the last five years, that change has been realised.
We have seen numbers of Scottish solicitors rise to record levels. Our membership has been opened to new and bigger groups of other legal professionals, such as accredited paralegals, legal technologists and Law Society fellows. Our student associate scheme was launched and has been a tremendous success.
We moved from our long-standing offices at Drumsheugh Gardens to our new home at Atria One, with fit for purpose accommodation for our staff team, our Council and hundreds of committee volunteers.
We have also changed our work to respond to new and emerging issues, particularly around technology, reform of our courts and on equality, diversity and wellbeing in the profession.
In thinking beyond 2020, our view was that the core elements of ‘leading legal excellence’ remained as relevant today as they did when our strategy was agreed in 2015. Work was progressing well to refresh and update our strategy to ensure it was effective and relevant for the years to come. However, like every individual, every business, every organisation, none of us imagined how events would force our thinking to change so radically and so quickly.
Like every part of society, the global spread of COVID 19 has impacted the legal sector and the solicitor profession deeply. For the Law Society, we worked to act quickly in response, with an unprecedented package of financial support for our members, coupled with a major recast of our work.
It has also inevitably required change to the approach we had been undertaking on our updated strategy. Given the level of uncertainty which currently exists, coupled with limits on our own finances from our proactive decision to reduce fees, our Council agreed it would be inappropriate to agree a new five-year plan. We have instead chosen to create a shorter two-year strategy that takes us to the end of 2022 and creates space for us to consider our longer-term ambitions and plans.
This new and updated strategy, whilst shorter in life than originally envisaged, seeks to keep the organisation centred on our important core responsibilities. However, we know the challenge of COVID 19 means our work to support and sustain recovery in the profession will require strong focus over the months and years to come.
It is why we have worked hard to ensure this document strikes an important balance. A strategy which responds to the huge socio-economic challenge of the here-and-now but also maintains focus on other big issues facing our members and the clients they serve. We believe this twoyear plan strikes that balance and we look forward to working with our members and our stakeholders in taking this important work forward.
The purpose of this strategy is two-fold. It aims to provide a clear strategic purpose for the work of our staff and volunteers over the next two years. It also aims to give a clear picture to our members, stakeholders and the wider public of our priority areas for the period ahead.
Our first ‘leading legal excellence’ strategy ran from 2015-2020. It adopted a different structure, a new tone and higher ambition for the Law Society compared to the document which went before. When we began to think about our work from 2020 onwards, a consensus quickly emerged within our Council that the core elements of ‘leading legal excellence’ were as relevant in 2020 as they were in 2015.
However, whilst the strategy had served the Law Society well, we needed to update and refresh our strategic framework. It had to reflect the new priorities which had arisen over the last five years as well as the emerging challenges.
Our initial plan was to complete that refresh and publish a revised five-year strategy for the start of our 2020/21 operating year. However, the dramatic events of 2020 required us to change our approach. The spread of COVID 19, an abrupt halt to much of the economy, shifts in both working practice and the operation of the justice sector meant our Council agreed it more appropriate to publish a shorter two-year plan. This recognised the huge social and economic uncertainty facing the country and the difficulty in assessing the longer-term outlook with confidence. It also recognised the changed financial position underpinning the Law Society, particularly with our decision to temporarily reduce core solicitor practising fees. However, even as we move to this interim two-year strategy, we need to recognise just how fluid the current situation is. This means our approach must be flexible enough to accommodate and adapt to changing circumstances.
We are continuing to structure our strategy across five areas: Assure, Support, Excel, Influence, and Evolve. Our strategic aims under each area reflect our distinct and varied responsibilities as well as the broad range of people who depend on us and our work.
It is also important to us that we are as open and transparent as possible in delivering this strategy. It is why we will continue our practice of publishing an operating plan each year. This will make clear the projects and areas of activity we will prioritise. We will report our progress in delivering that plan to our Board and our Council each month and publish a full account of our performance as usual and as part of our annual report.
We now aim to publish a new five-year strategy in 2022.
The context for this strategy
As we prepared to create an updated five-year strategy, we undertook significant engagement and research in 2019 and the early part of 2020.
We consulted widely within and outwith the profession on the key principles which needed to underpin our strategic thinking. We listened carefully and sought to better understand the changes happening in the legal sector and in society more widely. This provided us with wider knowledge to understand the context for our work over the years to come and the backdrop to which our objectives had to be set.
Much of that context has inevitably changed due to the spread of COVID 19 and the political and economic response to it. However, a great deal of this insight work and the conclusions we drew remains valid for this shorter interim strategy. We also offered everyone who had contributed to the original consultation the opportunity to feed into our updated thinking about the impact of COVID 19, which we have reflected on in developing this document.
Within just a few short months, Scotland and the rest of the UK have gone from small but steady rates of economic growth to the largest and deepest recession ever recorded. Current economic forecasts are burdened by huge uncertainty given the dependence on effective action to curb the spread of the virus, the development of vaccines and therapeutics, and movement and distancing restrictions needed to keep people safe.
Pre-COVID 19, the country was benefiting from historically high levels of employment. However, that picture is changing dramatically and is likely to worsen when job retention schemes and support packages unwind or are phased out.
The unemployment rate has been more pronounced in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, which some attribute to the exposure of the Scottish economy to the oil and gas downturn and a bigger dependence on tourism jobs. The Fraser of Allander Institute says it expects to see more substantial increases in unemployment and warns that those who become unemployed will experience a very challenging economy in which to find new work. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce has warned that the young and lowest paid are likely to be impacted disproportionately.
Inflation is expected to continue to fall below the Bank of England’s target. This means interest rates are likely to stay at historically low levels.
All this economic turbulence is inevitably impacting the legal sector, which has used the government furlough scheme and other support mechanisms extensively. We must prepare for redundancies, both in solicitor and non-solicitor roles, although early evidence suggests a strong appetite for people to retain their professional qualification even when they are without paid employment.
The legal services market in Scotland is changing. Over recent years, global law firms have merged with established Scottish practices. Despite record numbers of Scottish solicitors, there has been significant consolidation in terms of the number of solicitor firms. There has been a general decline in the number of traditional partnerships and sole practitioners although we have seen a rise in sole practitioner numbers in the period since COVID 19. The number of solicitors working in-house has substantially increased. We expect these trends to continue.
The speed of technological change and innovation in the legal services market has been rapid and will continue. The increased availability of technology offers new opportunities and greater efficiency. Equally, there are concerns around issues like cyber security, ethics and digital poverty. Technology will likely create new roles in the legal sector but also put some traditional roles and established income models at risk.
The Scottish legal sector is more competitive than ever before. Against that backdrop, the badge of Scottish solicitor will need to continue to be seen as a mark of excellence, both at home and internationally. This runs from a robust route to qualification through to high standards of practice and effective public protections for when things go wrong.
Substantial strains remain in the legal sector in terms of access to justice and legal aid provision. This vitally important part of the profession has long faced pressures from real-term cuts to fees and a complicated and bureaucratic system of remuneration. Pro-bono advice and law clinics provide an important service but will not replace formal professional legal advice where it is needed.
The percentage of the profession made up of in-house solicitors, both public and private sector, is expected to continue to grow. This reflects the changing requirements of companies and organisations and the increasing attractiveness of these roles for practising solicitors. However, the dual pressures of strained public finances and the need for private sector financial efficiency means in-house solicitors will be expected to do more with less.
Global connectivity and new technology means the important role of solicitors in identifying and reporting money laundering and other forms of fraud will become even greater than now. The UK Government is also likely to expect the profession to make a greater financial contribution to the systems in place to monitor and tackle economic crime.
Social attitudes are changing rapidly. Recent years have brought an increased focus on the importance of the legal profession looking like the society it serves. Whilst diversity has improved markedly, significant barriers remain and will need to be addressed.
Scotland was one of the very first legal jurisdictions to become majority female. Looking at the demographics of those studying to become solicitors, this is likely to become more pronounced. However, female solicitors only hold about 30% of partnership positions. Similarly, whilst our research indicates that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) solicitor numbers are broadly in line with the Scottish population, there are issues around career progression which need addressed. That focus on equality and diversity must also consider issues such as disability, social mobility and sexual orientation.
COVID 19 is accelerating changing attitudes to the importance of good mental health at home and in the workplace. Wellbeing and creating an effective worklife balance will be increasingly important for employees and employers. That is coupled with substantially different ways of doing business, with flexible and remote working likely to become the norm rather than the exception.
An increased focus on climate change will inevitably impact on businesses and individuals, as we strive to make more sustainable choices. There is ever greater pressure, particularly from younger generations, on governments at all levels to act on environmental issues. There is an increasing priority placed on climate action in public and private sector procurement and there is likely to be greater investment in climate measures and diversification away from fossil fuels.
Scotland and the UK continue to have a highly polarised political environment. The relationship between the Scottish and UK Governments, made up of differing political parties and viewpoints, can be fragile and often strained.
Nevertheless, both governments and parliaments have shown an openness and willingness to engage with civic society when pursuing reform. This creates opportunities to influence public policy decision making. At a time when new questions are being asked, those with solid arguments and clear evidence have an opportunity to shape the answers.
The 2021 Scottish Parliament elections will set the political foundation for the lifetime of this strategy. The outcome of that election is also likely to influence the decisions of the Scottish and UK Governments on a possible referendum on the issue of Scottish independence. The Law Society played a leading, non-partisan role in the 2014 referendum and would want to undertake a similar position in any new vote.
The capacity of government and parliament to address some issues and pursue certain areas of reform will inevitably be limited as ministers and parliamentarians rightly focus on the country’s economic recovery. This may impact on reform to the regulation of legal services and much needed simplification to legal aid. However, we expect there to be a continued political focus on reform to the justice system, fuelled by the need to recover from the response to COVID 19, both in terms of civil and criminal justice.
Our cross cutting themes
There are three words which feature throughout this strategy: technology, equality and resilience.
In creating this two-year plan, we identified these critical themes which span our different strategic objectives. They reflect the feedback which we received from the profession and our stakeholders, both in our early strategy work but also during the economic crisis which followed the spread of COVID 19.
These issues around equality, technology and resilience do not fit into any one single area. They must run as threads throughout our strategy and our work over the next two years.
Technology is transforming the legal sector. The use of artificial intelligence and digital solutions are allowing legal firms to deliver services in new and innovative ways. Online platforms are empowering consumers in their buying choices. The digitalisation of our courts is driving changes in practice, presenting opportunities and challenges in equal measure. As this transformation proceeds, we need to work with justice partners to ensure justice is accessible to everyone and the digital poor are not left out. We also know that technology will create exciting new job opportunities and specialisms in the legal sector but will also put some other traditional roles and methods under pressure.
As the professional body of Scottish solicitors, it is important that we help to lead the conversation on the use of technology in the legal sector. It will be important to help firms who need support to invest in and make best use of digital infrastructure, recognising that some are inevitably more advanced in the use of technology than others. Our regulatory responsibilities mean we must also ensure clients remain protected in what could be very different ways of delivering and receiving legal services.
As a business in our own right, the Law Society must also embrace the opportunity which technology offers us to be more effective, more efficient and more accessible. It will be increasingly important to adopt a ‘digital first’ approach in our work.
More widely, we recognise the importance of technology in helping the legal sector lessen or even eliminate its environmental impacts. Even with the current focus on recovering from COVID 19, the Law Society and the legal profession must play its part in changing to help create a sustainable future for the generations to come.
The Scottish legal profession must reflect the diversity of the society it seeks to serve. It needs to be accessible to anyone with drive and talent regardless of their background. When people do join the legal profession, we want them to have a long and fulfilling career.
Creating a more equal and diverse legal profession is not just the right thing to do – it makes good business sense. Diversity of backgrounds, diversity of thought, diversity of views all contribute to more viable and sustainable companies and sectors.
The Scottish solicitor profession is increasingly diverse but there is still much more to do. The important gains made when the organisation was formed in 1949 remain fragile and are arguably at greater risk due to implications of COVID 19.
Whilst the majority of the profession is female, the progression of women to more senior roles remains a challenge. This is underlined by the 20% gender pay gap and the fact so many talented women leave the profession never to return. This is even more important considering the evidence showing that the economic and social consequences of COVID 19 are more likely to impact more heavily on women.
Solicitors want a profession which is welcoming, inclusive and where discrimination of any kind is confronted. This includes a zero-tolerance approach to cases of bullying and harassment. Those with disabilities need to also be confident their employers will provide the facilities and make the adjustments they need.
As we seek to change attitudes and drive forward change, we want to work in partnership with others. This includes The Glass Network, the Scottish Ethnic Minority Lawyers’ Association and Women in Law Scotland. We also want to collaborate with government and our educational institutions to address the barriers at schools and universities which can impact on those from lower income groups from going on to enter the profession.
In leading this change, we need to be a champion of equality and diversity within our own organisation. As an employer, we need to adopt best practice and be open to challenge. Equally, we want to ensure our committee membership is rich with diversity and that our processes ensure anyone can contribute to our work.
Few could have predicted the dramatic events which would arise from the global pandemic. It forced large sections of our economy to come to a halt. It resulted in necessary limits on some of the basic freedoms we all take for granted. It challenged our educational institutions and has required government intervention on a scale not seen since World War 2.
For the legal sector, the impact was sudden and stark. The vast majority of court business was suspended. The property market all but ceased and took considerable time to restart. Substantial elements of commercial and private client work were postponed or cancelled. Hundreds of solicitors were furloughed and traineeships were deferred.
As a professional body, we worked hard to help the profession recover from the financial crisis in 2008. However, we need to be realistic about the scale of the challenge facing the legal sector now. It will require the Law Society to prioritise our activity carefully over the next two years so we support the sector’s recovery. This needs to cover our regulatory work, our member services and our influencing of others. We also need to develop our insight into the financial health of the profession and constantly update our data on the impact of the downturn.
This work is needed to create long-term resilience for businesses and individuals. We are particularly conscious of a generation of trainees and newly qualified solicitors who may find it difficult to secure employment due to the downturn and a lack of vacancies. These are the future leaders of the profession and they will need our support.
In doing so, we will also want to make sure the Law Society is structured, organised and resourced in a way that both responds to immediate challenges and ensures resilience over the long-term.