Five years into the decade of its Towards 2020 plan, the Law Society of Scotland has renewed its strategy to keep abreast of the pace of change, setting itself some challenging goals

Aware that the legal system and profession faced a “period of immense change”, five years ago the Society developed a long-term strategy that would chart a course for the 10-year period to 2020. Such has been the pace of change, however, that the process of assessing key issues and establishing common goals is already in need of review, just halfway through the period of the original strategic plan.

Chief executive Lorna Jack explains the thinking behind the review. “The very first line of the new strategy sums it up pretty well – ‘the legal market is going through unprecedented change’. And if the market and the profession are experiencing such extensive and rapid change, the responsibility of the Society is to respond accordingly.

“Our previous strategy anticipated many changes that have come to pass – consolidation of private practice, legal firms looking outwith Scotland to sustain their businesses, commoditisation of legal services, reductions in public spending, court reforms and a profession that is becoming younger and increasingly female in composition – but further challenges and opportunities have arisen.

“For instance, the original strategy, Towards 2020, recognised the political significance of the Scotland Bill then passing through Parliament and the further powers it would devolve from Westminster to Holyrood, based on the recommendations of the Calman Commission. Five years on, following the independence referendum and Smith Commission, our new strategy, Leading Legal Excellence, highlights that a subsequent Scotland Bill is under discussion by MPs, with proposals for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. It is a good example of the current pace of change and the need for all of us to respond accordingly.”

To be world class

Other profound shifts, she says, include the impact of digital technology, rising expectations of clients, signs of economic recovery, the introduction of new business models (even without the regulatory provisions yet in place to allow the creation of licensed legal services providers), the growth in legal outsourcing; and increases in the use of paralegals, legal executives and legal technicians.

Jack continues: “Following discussions with our members and others about all the ongoing developments in the legal profession and market, and other changes that may occur up to 2020 and beyond, we believe we should be even bolder, more ambitious and more effective than before. Leading Legal Excellence sets new objectives and stretching new targets, while encouraging fresh thinking and new ways of working. Our mission is to be a world-class professional body and our purpose to lead legal excellence. These are big challenges for us, but we believe they are achievable.”

Achieving recognition as a world-class organisation, she explains, would involve playing a wider role on issues such as upholding the rule of law, protecting human rights and promoting access to justice. She adds that, in communicating the views of members and the clients they serve, the Society’s voice should be heard more loudly around the world. Also, in an age of globalisation, Scottish solicitors deserve due recognition for their rigorous and globally valued professional qualifications, standards and membership accreditation.

Growth targets

Organisational changes are expected too. The new strategy aims to grow the Society’s commercial, non-fee income from £1.46 million to £3 million. Also by 2020, membership numbers should include 12,000 practising certificate-holding solicitors – a slight rise on the current figure of around 11,200 – as well as 10,000 additional paying members, including registered foreign lawyers, paralegals and legal executives.

Jack acknowledges that the latter goal is ambitious but insists it is also both attainable and necessary. A world-class professional body, she says, should aspire not only to serve existing members, but also to grow the overall membership base and income, not least to spread the cost of developing a sustainable and effective business model. She cites the success of the Society’s Registered Paralegal Scheme – membership has grown from 100 when the previous strategy was launched to 379 last month – as an example that could be followed when attracting other legal professionals to join the Society. Likewise, more could be done to attract other professionals (for instance, those working in accountancy or finance within a law firm), non-practising members within Scotland, those who work outwith the Scottish jurisdiction and perhaps also students and academics.

“Although our membership is currently made up of qualified Scottish solicitors working in Scotland, the continued evolution of the legal market around the world is resulting in increasing numbers choosing to work elsewhere in the UK and overseas. The challenge for the Society is to broaden the support we offer – to existing and potential members, wherever they are in the world – so that every one of them has the opportunity to use a Law Society service every day of their working lives. We will look to others for best practice to ensure we are world class in the way we deal with the public, our staff and our members. We are setting out our stall to be the best.”

Members’ aspirations

The focus on the needs and interests of members is a theme picked up by Society President Christine McLintock. “Our core membership is at the heart of this strategy. We recognise that the profession is not homogeneous and members have different needs. With better use of data and technology, we want to tailor our services and the information we communicate to make sure we serve all our members, whatever their area of practice. And increasing our membership base ensures the whole system is sustainable – it’s easier to provide for members if more fees are coming in. That, in turn, will allow us to provide products and services that can help firms innovate and grow. The goals of growth and service provision are mutually supportive and interconnected – they can’t be read in isolation. Our success can lead to the profession’s success.”

In other words, the purpose of the new strategy is to “lead legal excellence”, she says. She echoes Lorna Jack in explaining that this will involve setting and enforcing the highest professional standards and providing qualifications that are respected and recognised around the world. However, she adds, the system of regulation must also adapt if it is to keep pace with the ever-changing legal services market. For that reason, the Society will put the case to the Scottish Government for a new legislative framework that encourages a more modern approach and better serves the public interest.

She continues: “Underlying this strategy is a great pride in our profession – and we believe that it reflects the aspirations and ambitions of our members. Our focus is already on regulation, and a key element of what the Society does is competence. We feel very seriously that the education and skills of the profession are such that we should not aspire just to competence, but to excellence for our clients and those we serve – not only at a national level but internationally, and not just among our members, but throughout the Society itself. We want our Society and our members to be respected and influential wherever they go and wherever they practise law. We already have a significant number of members working outside the UK and we want to build on that.

“We recognise that the market is changing and the pace of change is starting to escalate. Already in Scotland we have lots of different business models appearing, as businesses are being shaped around law firms. And we are only going to see more and more competition from elsewhere – we want our members to be able to compete on a level playing field and make the most of opportunities that exist. Looking ahead, the Society needs to be in a position to be able to regulate our members and our member firms, regardless of what shape they take in the future.”

McLintock recognises the ambitious nature of the “aspirational and inspirational” strategy, but believes its aims will resonate with members. “It’s a challenging strategy, but then a strategy should be challenging. While it takes us to the next level, all our existing core values remain embedded within it, which I believe will strike a chord with members. We’ve got a great team at the Society, led by a very energetic and ambitious chief executive, and that will take us a long way in implementing these objectives.”

Progress checks

Both chief executive and President are keen to emphasise the importance of feedback from the profession on the contents of the strategy. An operating plan will be published for each of the next five years, with staff also providing monthly progress reports to the Society’s board and Council. The intention is that, from November onwards, the Society’s priorities should reflect the aims of the strategy, with progress visible to members. As with the previous Towards 2020 strategy, it is acknowledged that changes may be needed, perhaps even within the five year-period covered, such is the pace of change. The last word to Lorna Jack: “Like any good plan, it will evolve as new challenges arise. No strategy is set in stone.”

The strategy is available to read in full on the Society’s website, along with a short video, at
www.lawscot.org.uk/strategy. If you have any thoughts, please tweet @lawscot using #towards2020, or join the conversation in the Society’s LinkedIn group. Alternatively, you can email comms@lawscot.org.uk

The Author
Craig Watson is a freelance writer with a special interest in legal matters
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