President's message: the Society's current policy on ABS allows all firms to practise in the manner they choose, and that aim should be supported at the SGM

Hello again.

I’ve been the President of the Society for nine months now and a solicitor in private practice for 30 years. Despite that, I’ve probably met, or even encountered, no more than a couple of thousand members of the Society in that time. The vast majority of you therefore don’t know me and it is unreasonable to expect you to take me on trust.

So, just a few words about my professional history. As I said last month, I was pretty leftie student and although I served an invaluable traditional apprenticeship with Pattison & Sim in Paisley, on qualifying, as a result of a desire to bring legal representation to the otherwise disadvantaged, I chose to work for Ross Harper & Murphy in Easterhouse. Eleven years later, I washed up in their Cumbernauld office when, as their branch network dissolved, I found myself, more by accident than design, as the sole principal of Ian S Smart & Co. That’s where I’ve been ever since, and as I’ve got older, so have my clients.

While I can still look back with satisfaction on past murder defences, or victories (against the odds) over insurers and their legal top guns, as time passes I become increasingly grateful for that grounding in general chamber practice I gained at Pattison & Sim. Accordingly, just like many of you, I have felt acutely the weight of the economic recession and the collapse of my conveyancing business. And I’m as annoyed as you when an established client’s minor accident ends up in the hands of a daytime television call centre, or their granny’s executry at a firm recommended by their brand name undertaker; or indeed their children’s minor dismeanours are entrusted to a “specialist” criminal firm.

But I’m also aware, in my current role, of the fragility of the current regulatory regime surrounding the legal profession in Scotland. And, even more so, that the collapse of that framework will hurt, primarily, not those of us who practise the law to make a fortune but rather those of us who do so to make a living, and, just occasionally, to make a difference.

I’d written a column this month about the dangers of email communication to the unwary solicitor. Then, a few days before the Journal deadline, the Scottish Law Agents Society requisitioned a Special General Meeting to try and reverse the Society’s ABS policy. I am told it is time for a “Presidential statement” and the column must go.

I’ve insisted however that the Presidential statement go elsewhere (it’s on p16) because I want to make a more direct appeal.

Please take time to consider the full arguments on this matter. It would be nice if the legal services market could stand still. But, just like any other area of economic activity, it can’t and irrespective of the internal deliberations of the Society, it most certainly won’t. My own objective, and that of the Council I am honoured to lead, has been, throughout this process, to allow the big commercial firms the economic freedom which they seek in an increasingly competitive world environment while preserving the existing privileges and protections enjoyed and offered by us at the other end of the market. I believe the settlement proposed, through a combination of the bill and a new regulatory regime potentially remaining in the hands of the profession, achieves exactly that. And that if you take time to work this through in your own mind, I believe you will see that too.

If you do, I’m not too proud to ask you for your support, either by attending the SGM or, if that is not possible, by completing a proxy form to support the existing policy. Papers including proxy forms have been sent to all members; more information is on the Society website ABS page.

Finally, I want to say this.

I’m not much given to Presidential statements. They are pompous and presume a degree of solemnity which is seldom the right of the office holder. Most certainly that applies in my case. More personally, and for those few of you who do know me, you will recognise that they are not my style. I truly do however believe that the Law Agents’ initiative is fundamentally misconceived and, if successful, potentially fatally damaging to the viability of the small general practices on which access to justice depends. Practices just like my own.

Thank you for your attention and, I hope, for your support.

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