As my time in this post comes to an end, many people have asked me how I see the legal profession in Scotland.As an adherent to the “half-full” rather than the “half-empty” view of life I am confident about the profession and its future. I have been impressed with the ways in which Scottish solicitors – individually and collectively – are facing the challenges of practice and are adopting new ways of thinking about the work they do. Generally we show considerable flexibility and willingness to embrace change and make it work for us.
The State of the Nation
For a number of years we have experienced high levels of competition within the profession and increasing competition from alternative unqualified providers of legal services. In my view our profession is absolutely right to question whether competition from unqualified and unregulated providers is in the public interest. It is an argument we must continue to press vigorously with government, both north and south of the border. However, competition in general is an essential reality of the modern business world. Over the last year I have seen many good examples of a more entrepreneurial approach to business within the legal profession, and I applaud the initiative of Scottish solicitors.
I.T. can be a challenge to traditional ways of working, but it can also provide cost-effective solutions for delivering improved services to our clients, whether we work in private practice or in-house. A few years ago the profession had some ground to make up on the I.T. front. By and large I think that that has been achieved but the pace of change continues to accelerate and we have to be with or ahead of the game.
A new Department at the Society was formed in April following the appointment of the new Director of On-line Services. The appointment brings in expertise from outwith the profession to provide technology services to members and to find ways of making it easier for you to deliver high-quality cost-effective services to your clients. My vision remains the achievement of a profession-wide system of secure electronic communications, which will be available to our clients and will involve agencies and organisations including banks, building societies, the Registers, SLAB and the Courts. That vision should become reality within the foreseeable future.Education is also recognised across the profession as critical to the provision of quality legal services and the maintenance of high standards. This applies to both the education we need to become solicitors as well as post qualification training. In recent years the Society has taken much more of a lead in professional legal education. This must be right. Many necessary changes and improvements have been made and will be implemented over the next year, but we must keep our eye on this ball. There is a need for more joined-up thinking on how the various elements should work together. The profession must continue to take the lead while working with educationalists to achieve the best possible results.
Communication, communication, communication
There is no doubt that the Society is more modern and approachable than ever before. An enormous amount of hard work is done by Council and Committee members and the Executive staff. We want to see solicitors value membership of the Society because of what it does for them. We strive for accountability and transparency - qualities which depend upon communication. As I have said many times, communication with you, the members, is one of the most important functions of the Society and there have been major strides forward in the last three or four years. The Office Bearers attend Faculty Forums all around the country on a regular programme. There have been significant improvements in the Journal which is now much more widely read among the profession. The Website has been revamped, is easy to use, and contains a huge amount of information. The On-line Services initiative will focus on easier and more effective communication. Many Council members report regularly to the Faculties in their own local constituencies on the work of the Society, and from time-to-time there is also the good old-fashioned letter from Drumsheugh Gardens.
Nevertheless all these efforts do not manage to reach all of the profession. You only have to read some of the contributions to the Journal letters page to see that. My experience is that communication needs to be improved in the cities, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow, where, of course, the majority of the membership is based. The Society must work on solutions to this issue and we would be grateful for ideas and suggestions from members.
I have enjoyed the last year immensely. It has been a great privilege to serve as President and when I step down at the end of this month I will miss much of what I have been lucky to be involved in as President. Those I have worked with or met over the last year have been so good to me, and I will be forever grateful. I now look forward to repaying the debts I owe to my partners and colleagues at work for their support, and to my wife Susie and our children for all they have had to put up with!