President of the Law Society of Scotland inevitably demands.
In Martin McAllister’s case it’s probably best explained by an old-fashioned notion of civic duty and a commitment to improving the standing of a profession in which he has an intrinsic faith.
“It’s an incredibly challenging and stimulating time to be President of the Society. The Scottish Parliament has presented great opportunities for the profession and public.”
Externally, he is under no illusions about some of the challenges the Society faces. Foremost will be the Justice I Committee’s examination of the regulation of the legal profession.
“It’s perfectly proper for them to be looking at this topic. We have confidence that the profession will be shown to be doing a good job in that area.”
Without inviting unnecessary scrutiny, a priority in the immediate future is to consider the OFT’s report into the professions. While it only deals with England and Wales, “it would be naïve to think there won’t be some impact on the profession here”.
One of the OFT’s recommendations is to facilitate MDPs, but the incoming President reiterates the Society’s policy remains that“ such partnerships are not in the interests of the public” at the present time.
He also takes issue with the Report’s assumption that free competition as an end in itself is always in the public interest, with no rigorous analysis of what exactly constitutes the public interest.
“Much of what the OFT recommends is designed for protection under the banner of improved convenience for the public but I’m not convinced that allowing banks and building societies to offer the complete home buying service by including conveyancing would adequately protect the public. Conveyancing practitioners will tell of strong existing competition in the marketplace between firms. There has to be independence in the advice given and there is much that, while giving the appearance of fostering competition, might not necessarily be in the public interest.”
Also high on the agenda are concerns over the funding of legal aid and access to justice generally. McAllister convened the Society’s legal aid committee when fixed payments were first announced and was praised for leading a considered and concerted campaign to present the Society’s views. However, the big issue is eligibility to civil legal aid.
“The contributions people have to pay are beyond the means of many for whom access to justice should be a right not a privilege. The Justice I inquiry will hopefully address these issues.”
Central to his tenure, as it has been for his recent predecessors, will be an ongoing series of faculty visits. For the incoming President hearing views from the coalface is the most valuable way of gauging the mood of the profession. In essence, it’s what his role is all about.
“Faculties are very welcoming and have been a tremendous source of ideas and support. Sometimes what they tell us can make for uncomfortable listening but as a way of getting a real picture of the profession in Scotland, it’s invaluable.”
From travelling the country as Vice President he’s identified a potential manpower shortage in rural areas as being a priority for discussion.
“The difficulties outlying firms are having in attracting young solicitors is a concern. Most recent figures indicate 50% of trainees are being employed by the ten largest firms. There is a danger that in the future there may be a shortage of solicitors in rural areas, raising further issues of access to justice. Sometimes rural practice doesn’t have the attraction of urban practice. There’s been much discussion about community legal services. Rural firms provide excellent services to their communities, the challenge is to provide the correct level of service for clients at the right cost.”
Nevertheless, is he concerned that the Society isn’t as relevant as it ought to be to larger firms? “The Society does reach out to larger firms. We do have a number of Council members from large firms but it’s true that even in two or three faculty visits we might only meet the equivalent number of practitioners as operate in some of the larger firms and that is something I have to address.”
His overall impression is of a fairly buoyant profession. “There are areas of the profession that are flourishing and a number of places where people are operating profitably. But we also have to recognise that there are geographical areas and areas of practice where people are struggling and offering essential services to the community for diminishing reward. Solicitors working in the field of legal aided matrimonial practice, for example, haven’t seen fee levels increase for ten years.”
His recurring emphasis is on teamwork and how the “rolling presidency” has ensured that he has been part of the decision making process in the previous administrations, in effect rendering his commitment to serving as an office bearer to nearly three years.
“Since being elected as Vice President I’ve been involved at every stage in the team-based approach to developing initiatives.”
Central to that has been the Policy and Planning Group, discussed by Martin McAllister in last month’s Journal. “The PPG has only been up and running for one year, but we expect to bring further initiatives to Council in the coming months and it’s a forum whereby we would encourage all members of the profession to approach us with ideas.”
The last year has seen the Society introduce a number of corporate initiatives, in particular offering members the opportunity to purchase IT equipment at discounted cost. Now the Society, demonstrated by its appointment of online services director Gordon Brewster, is working towards developing safe and secure ways for the profession to communicate with other members and agencies.“As a membership organisation we have an obligation to provide members with high quality, cost effective services. Update is the quality provider of continuing legal education. In the last year we have started to fully utilise the Society’s bargaining power, in particular with Microsoft, take up of which exceeded all expectations, and in the coming year James Ness, Council member for Dumfries, Kirkcudbright and Stranraer, will be working to develop further initiatives, with the eventual aim of having a portfolio of discounts and benefits for members to take advantage of.” Also important in the year ahead is seeing eight years of work on reforming education and training coming to fruition. “It means a lot of work and change but I’m looking forward to the benefits it will bring to the profession.”
McAllister is aware that reacting to unplanned events will constitute the major test of his time in office. Some people have suggested he may be too nice, lacking a ruthless streak. “Ruthlessness is not a route to progress. Determined co-operation and strong consensus reaps better benefits. If hard decisions have to be taken I won’t shirk from it, but it really is a team based approach. The Council and Executive work well together and while some members of the profession will always disagree with what we’re doing, the vast majority are incredibly supportive.”