Interview with incoming President Bruce Beveridge, whose career in the Government legal service has given him a remarkable variety of exposure to legal practice

I’ll begin by sticking my neck out. I would hazard the view that most Scottish solicitors agree that Austin Lafferty has done a pretty good job as President of the Law Society of Scotland, and helped bring the Society into much closer contact with its members. What onus does that put on the man who has to succeed him in that office?

Bruce Beveridge, for it is he, fully endorses the assessment. “Austin has made a great contribution to advancing the Society’s relevance, its openness, its engagement,” he asserts. “Austin has been a great President full stop… He is an exceptionally hard act to follow.”

But our interview fails to turn up any indications that Beveridge is in any way daunted at the prospect. Indeed, “One of the joys for me as Vice President has been the chance to work with such an accomplished President.”

How, though, will someone whose career to date has been spent almost entirely in the Government Legal Service step into the shoes of a leading high street solicitor with a prominent media profile? In fact, it soon becomes apparent that Beveridge’s experience does not lend itself to simple labels.

Been there, done that

Joining the service in 1995, his first five years saw a range of work including land compensation, social security, debt recovery and general litigation. Then came a posting to the Lord President’s private office, where he served under Lord Rodger and then Lord Cullen, for a period that covered the first devolution issues along with significant procedure reforms, criminal and civil. “Working with those at the very highest level of the judicial system is a quite unrepeatable experience,” he comments. “After six or seven months with Lord Rodger, I had learned more than in my entire professional development until then.”

In 2004, another move took Beveridge to Registers of Scotland, as Deputy Keeper, with a mission “to enhance relations between that office and the legal profession”, as well as to help prepare Registers for digital registration. Finally, he was transferred to the Department of Rural Affairs, at a time when legal expertise was needed in relation to crofting and tenant farming, land reform, and help for rural communities under EU grant schemes – a role that brought him into contact with many rural practices.

Since leaving Government service in 2011, Beveridge’s non-Society focus is as chair of the Centre for Rural Development, an organisation created by Scottish Land & Estates to identify gaps and opportunities for supporting rural development across Scotland. “It’s not a legal role, but one of the very interesting aspects is translating the legal structures into where the opportunities may lie for communities, rural businesses and rural development generally, looking, for example, at what’s going to emerge from the Land Reform Review Group, on what is already quite a technical piece of legislation. How the group reports to Government and what the future should be for land reform will pose some intricate legal challenges.”

As for being alive to practitioners’ concerns, Beveridge continues: “I’ve always taken an approach which is very externally focused in the way that I’ve tried to deliver the Government’s work. That approach has brought me into deeper contact with practices of every type, the length and breadth of the country, and that’s certainly something I intend to continue. One of the things that I’m determined on is making sure that I am very visible and present across the profession so that I can keep on top of that.”

A comment heard in some quarters is that the Society is too close to Government. Will that perception be strengthened by a Beveridge presidency? “I’m not now close to Government at all,” he responds. “I’m entirely separate from Government and, as I say, I hope to be able to use the background that I have for everybody’s benefit. I don’t think Government feels that we have too close a relationship with them right now. The issues around ABS, separate representation, the court closure programme and most certainly criminal legal aid demonstrate that the Government consider they have quite a robust relationship, and it’s certainly one that we will be intent on maintaining. Of course, I am always keen to deliver through co-operation where possible – it is invariably more effective and less resource-intensive.”

Lessons taken to heart

A member of Council since 2005, apart from an interruption when rural affairs took him away from Edinburgh, Beveridge claims to have nurtured an ambition to serve the profession ever since the then Lord President Hope delivered the address at his admission ceremony 11 years earlier. “He exhorted those becoming members of the profession to engage with the Society, which he rated as the best run membership body he had come across. And it was his encouragement to do so which sowed the seed in my mind.”

Those disenchanted at the outcome of the most recent legal aid negotiations will take some persuading of Lord Hope’s view, but Beveridge is determined to put the experience of the row that followed to good use. “One of the great things about the legal aid situation was the number of people who contributed, who became involved, and that’s something we’re looking very closely at: how we can cement that involvement, how we can move the way in which we relate to the profession – but to all sections, not just the criminal legal aid lawyers – in a way that gives them the representation they are looking for within the Society’s overarching functions.”

Council has still to decide on the way forward, in the light of submissions following Austin Lafferty’s discussion paper, but Beveridge points more generally to work on facilitating e-consultation and voting, and moves towards remote engagement at general meetings: “I think ultimately we’re moving to a position where we can have better validation of the membership’s decision making at general meetings. I think it’s something that an e-agenda can play an essential role in.”

Can the Society restore the trust that was lost in the recent fallout? “Yes. I’m not sure of the extent to which significant trust has really been lost. There is a sense of realism as to what legitimately could have been achieved. But I think certainly demonstrating that we have understood the emotions and the views that were expressed there, and can evolve the way in which we relate to that sector of the profession is extremely important, and I think that will go a very long way not just to restoring trust but moving it a step forward as well.”

There remain those who believe they should be allowed to opt out of representation by the Society in favour of another body. Beveridge argues: “There is no doubt that the influence of having a central body with the expertise and highly professional executive that the Society has, is significantly more impactful. The Government has a very clear agenda; it has very clear financial pressures; and to expect a disparate number of small bodies to have any real prospect of dealing with Government, I just don’t think it’s realistic. I’m not sure the Government would choose to use their dwindling resources to do so, but I certainly think there’s a lot more benefit to be had from a central professional executive doing it.”

It’s the economy

Speaking of Government, the issues on which the Society is currently at odds with ministers are largely what Beveridge expects to feature most during his term: legal aid, court closures, ABS, and the question of diversity and fair access to the profession raised by the student loans shortfall on the Diploma course.

Those matters, and the continuing effects of the weak economy, of course. Lafferty predicted in interview this time last year that if continuing financial pressures on solicitors’ firms came to a head, it would create a significant management issue for the Society. Beveridge agrees that that has been borne out. “We’re actually reviewing at the moment internally the way that the Society addresses some of the issues that come out of firms having to cease trading, though we certainly hope the situation won’t repeat. But in the economic climate it would be unwise to suggest that it’s not going to.”

He adds that it’s very important that firms understand and feel comfortable that they can trust the Society to operate as a completely confidential sounding board, and provider of guidance and support. “The message has to be, if you’re concerned about the way your business is going, then it might be helpful to contact the Society as early as possible, because there are very experienced professionals here who are keen to give as much support as they possibly can. Looking at what else the Society can do, that is something that’s under constant review and we’ve tried to put in place the availability of business management support and so on, but one of the difficult things is getting a clear lead on what the profession finds is useful. That’s the challenge.”

But he claims to retain a significant degree of optimism. “I think when we look back in 30 years this will be the period of the most profound change in the profession’s history. One of the core attributes of the Scottish profession is innovation. The profession has innovated its way through the cyclical nature of change at every turn. When I was admitted 20 years ago that was the last recession. The profession simply evolved its way through that; and it’s evolved its way through many other historic challenges. There is no doubt the current financial situation is far reaching, but if the profession retains and leverages some of those core attributes of excellence and independence, and innovation, I remain optimistic that it will simply innovate its way through this period.”

Seeking alternatives

And what of the brave new world of ABS, on which matters appear to have stalled somewhere between the Society and the Government? “The current position is that we are seeking a clear, defined timetable which will get us from where we are to being an accredited regulator, so that we can start taking in and processing applications from the people we know are waiting for this to happen, in order that they can benefit from the commercial advantage that will come from being able to restructure themselves.

“We’ve been working closely throughout and I think we remain of the view that there is relatively little difference in where we stand. We certainly don’t think there should be; we’ve been quite clear about what our views are, what is necessary, from the outset. The Government is having a change of team at the moment, and during that time we’re hoping to have a clear programme built up so that we can get the matter progressed and concluded expeditiously over the summer and autumn.

The message has to be, if you’re concerned about the way your business is going, then it might be helpful to contact the Society as early as possible, because there are very experienced professionals here who are keen to give as much support as they possibly can BRUCE BEVERIDGE

“There are some difficult issues legislatively about legal services across the piece, including estate agency, incidental financial business – which has a different regulatory driver, controlled by the UK Government rather than the Scottish Government – those are issues which will take slightly longer to resolve simply because of that complexity, but we certainly hope to have a concluded scheme this year.”

It has been predicted that the outlook for the Society itself is uncertain if the pattern of Anglo-Scottish mergers continues, or more solicitors become employed by non-solicitor businesses. Beveridge assures me that “the Society is doing detailed scenario planning around how the profession is evolving and might continue to evolve, and how to operate to make sure it continues to support its members and the public and structures itself in such a way that is consistent with that”.

The number of practising certificate holders remains at an all-time high, he points out, and even in England & Wales, where there are already 150 licensed ABS (with another 400 applications in the pipeline), the total has this year just declined marginally for the first time. “While there is undoubtedly the potential for structural change in the profession, we’re well on board in assessing what the various structures look like and what the options would be for the future.”

Public facing

One final role for the Society that Beveridge believes is very important is its engagement with civic Scotland, which he defines as the “landscape” around the Society and the profession – encompassing among other things economic influences, cultural change, Government (UK and Scottish), and the pending independence referendum. “There are a lot of very far reaching initiatives north and south of the border, and it’s essential that society has the benefit of a completely non-partisan organisation which is very well informed and well placed to act as a facilitator either for debate around or the translation of some of these issues.”

In relation to the referendum, for example, “it’s very important for the Society to really leverage its relationships and influence as much as possible for the benefit of the interests of Scotland and the legal profession”.

His concluding comment, however, comes back to his own intentions for the presidency. “The President’s role is a fascinating one. The ability to get as much feedback from the profession as possible is very important indeed. The President has something of a unique position in being able to translate a lot of feedback into the organisation and vice versa. It’s part of being visible and present in the role.”

He might not be Austin Lafferty, but Scottish solicitors are likely to see quite a lot of Bruce Beveridge over the coming year.


Online extra

Some further quotes from the interview:

On his motivation for serving on Council: "I joined Council in 2005. I had had quite a longstanding aspiration to serve the profession more generally. I was invited to join a couple of committees while I was in Government but it didn’t prove to be appropriate at that time.

"But part of my motivation goes back to Lord Hope of Craighead’s address at my admission ceremony 20 years ago. Lord Hope gave an address at the admission ceremony for new lawyers in April this year, and what he said was, having dug out his notes from the last time he gave an address 20 years ago, a great deal of it was remarkably similar. We were again facing economic challenges, we were then in a recession, it was the first time that there was a shortfall of training places for Diploma graduates, and he exhorted those becoming members of the profession to engage with the Law Society, which he rated as the best run membership body he had come across. And it was his encouragement to do so which sowed the seed in my mind.

"So in 2005 I stood for election in the Edinburgh constituency but was invited to be co-opted given the role I had at the time, which I did. I came off Council briefly during the last role I had in Government because it was simply incompatible with that role, which were based furth of Edinburgh to a great extent, and rejoined in the last Edinburgh Council elections in 2011."

On his main areas of interest since then: "I think Council has been an absolutely fascinating experience and there is nothing that has cropped up in Council at any point since I first joined that hasn’t been of interest. I spent quite a lot of time on the more governance-oriented aspects of its work. I served on the Guarantee Fund Committee for some years initially, which was a fascinating insight. I served on and convened the Audit Committee for a time as well, and my in-house background led me to contribute to that area of work too. My property work at Registers led me to do quite a lot with the then Conveyancing Committee in this very interesting time."

On being alive to practitioners' concerns: “My first wider engagement with the profession was in the mid-80s when I took part in ‘Law Week’, an initiative to get to communities which, at that time, would traditionally have been less inclined to go to a solicitor. Like many who go into the profession I have a clear picture of and interest in the absolute importance to society of a strong, independent and accessible solicitors' profession.”

On what the Society has achieved in the past year: "I think it has achieved quite a lot during that time. We’ve become much more focused on how best we can build a better connection with the various branches of the profession, and a two-way connection. That’s the profession feeding into the Society every bit as much as the Society feeding out. I think the way the Society now can translate messages which civic Scotland has a much better stake in is also notable, and it’s really crucial going forward that we focus ever more on this area of work. The Society’s relevance to civic Scotland is significant and we need to do more there."

On whether he has a principal goal in mind, such as Austin's objective of selling the profession to the public: "One of the good things in recent times is that the Society’s strategy, its corporate planning has evolved, in the way that the Vice President, President, Past President can work more closely together. It means that my main aim is to drive further forward the work that Austin has been doing. I really want the Society to be considered more relevant; I want its relevance to increase across the piece. That’s relevance to the profession, relevance to the public, relevance to other institutional bodies. Not just in Scotland."

On how he thinks legal firms are coping with the continuing economic uncertainty: "I have a significant degree of sympathy for traditional firms which have been operating in an environment which has changed very radically very quickly. It’s a really difficult thing to adjust very quickly to that, if you’ve been operating in what was quite a steady safe environment for a long time. If I can go back to innovation, there are many people who have a very clear bead on what they want to do in the future. Look at your Austin Laffertys, an SME high street firm: he runs that very successfully; it has a very clear take on what to do and how to do it....

"We’re not going to see a complete transformation of the climate just when the recession comes to an end, but one of the things I’d be very interested in is around that territory, whether there are things the Society could do either to prompt firms to think in a different way about how to evolve or whether there are technical issues we can help them with. My feeling is that across the profession as a whole, most people have done what they need to do; there’s been a lot of restructuring, some of it very difficult and painful, and I think most of that will now have happened."

On his interests outside the law: "Most of my interests are ex-interests. I used to play quite a lot of sport, a great deal of golf, but as I’ve done incremental further damage to myself, various activities have been put off limits. In fact the last time I went for a pleasant stroll on Skye on a Saturday morning I fell off a cliff! So I’ve elected to shelve my aspirations for motor sport… I enjoy many things: I spend a lot of time around Scotland in the outdoors, and also I’m fond of music and do quite a lot of reading."


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