With a career ranging across most sizes of firm, and years of service at the Society, incoming President Alison Atack brings wide experience to the role. She tells the Journal of the challenges ahead

Presidents of the Law Society of Scotland can usually be pigeonholed. They may have a big firm background, or in-house, or high street like current incumbent Graham Matthews.

Alison Atack, the next holder of the office, is rather different. Though essentially a private client lawyer over her career of 40-plus years, she has migrated from training and early practice at Biggart Baillie & Gifford and then McClure Naismith – she notes with some regret that neither still exists – to sole practice while she had a young family, to Kidstons, a six-partner practice when it merged in 2008 with top 15 firm Lindsays, from which in turn she retired as a partner at the end of March.

“Yes, it’s quite a variety of sizes of firm,” she agrees. “That’s one of the reasons I thought I could bring a lot to the Society, because I’ve worked in very large firms, and very small ones covering all the roles myself, although eventually I did have some assistance. It was a very good learning curve having to do everything.”

Caring for children as well might not be thought the best combination, but Atack explains that having her own practice gave her much more flexibility. “I could go into work early in the morning while the family were still asleep, that kind of thing. I was a sole practitioner for about 10 years.”

Was it always her desire to be a lawyer? One of three sisters all of whom entered the profession, it was her elder sister who awakened the interest of the younger two by coming home to talk about her studies. With husband Iain – whom she met through a legal firm’s drinks night – at one time also her professional partner, and now an employment judge, you could say the law has become pretty much ingrained in her family.

But all good things come to an end. Her retirement “was a very sad occasion but a happy one too. So many clients wrote to me and sent me cards, saying it wasn’t just them, it was their family that I’d helped throughout the years, so that was a good celebration really. It made me feel it was all worth while”.

Twenty years on Council

Long service also marks Atack’s tenure on the Society’s Council, which she first joined in 1998. Among the many changes she has seen in that time, “First of all there are a lot more women on Council! I can remember arriving in Drumsheugh Gardens, and finding a sea of grey-suited men and very few women around at all.”

The arrival of the board, and the Regulatory Committee, on both of which she has served, have also been significant – as has the addition of non-solicitor members, which she believes has been a positive development, despite initial concerns in some quarters that elected solicitor members would have less influence as a result. “That was a big fear at the beginning, but that just hasn’t happened: everybody fits in very well together. The lay members come from all sorts of walks of life with different experiences. And they are volunteers; they’re not paid anything for it, but they are very good attenders, and they do make a valuable contribution.”

In her time, Atack has certainly got to know the Society’s many roles. “I don’t think there is one committee I haven’t been on, actually! But mainly I’ve sat on the board, and been convener of complaints committees, and Professional Conduct – I was one of the first conveners there – and when the Regulatory Committee came along I was shadow convener for that. Recently I have been convener for the Client Protection Subcommittee, the former Guarantee Fund. I’m giving that up now, but I kept it on while I was Vice President because it’s one of the most satisfying committees to be on – although the work we do can be challenging, the committee is made up of very good people and we do try to adopt a holistic approach.”

Already a longstanding member of the Royal Faculty in Glasgow, her year as Vice President has seen her go out to meet other groups such as the Sole Practitioners’ Forum: “I was prepared to be on the receiving end of some difficult questions but it was a very positive evening. They had some gripes but it’s good that people feel they can talk about them, and hopefully get some replies.”

Can something be done about the gripes? “Conveyancing is always an area the profession have complaints about – difficult and changing processes and so on, but I aim to feed all these issues back and find some positive solutions too, working closely with key stakeholders such as Registers of Scotland.”

An interesting year, she confirms, the more so as she has found herself working independently of Matthews as President more than she anticipated: “I thought perhaps I would be doing a lot in tandem with Graham, but that hasn’t really worked out, possibly because of the number of attendances at conferences and events which allow us to meet with colleagues and peers, across Scotland, the UK and in other jurisdictions, but we do know each other very well – we’ve been on committees together – so I’ve really enjoyed it.” She instances a “very positive” meeting earlier the same day with Legal Affairs Minister Annabelle Ewing: “It’s great to be able to have a say on the profession’s behalf.”

Top of the list

Talk of Government brings us on to the big topics of the day, and of Atack’s year, such as legal aid, an issue which “has featured throughout my time on Council, perhaps more so than anything”. With the new review out, “there are some positive things in that,” but pushing the Government for the recommended review of fees, and some return from that, will be a feature of her year. “The Society will continue to promote the message that legal aid lawyers are there to help people get access to justice; they deserve better support.”

At least as important will be the legal services regulation review. “We’ve had several meetings with Esther Roberton and I’m sure she will be very evenhanded and pragmatic; she seems to be very much like that. I don’t think it’s holding anything back, the fact that it’s going on in the background, because we wanted it, we were the ones who thought reform would be a good idea, so we hope it will produce positive results and enable the Society to keep pace with global developments.”

Not, she insists, that the Society finds itself effectively stalled until whatever legislation follows the review report. “We’re moving forward with getting things in a row, ready for it. I can’t think of anything that’s being held up by it. In terms of the complaints system, there are things we can do now and I intend to engage with the SLCC in taking forward our joint venture for quick fixes which will help improve current processes.”

In her recent interview (Journal, March 2018, 12) Roberton drew a comparison with the medical professions, where professionals have to show their continued fitness to practise from time to time. How would the Society respond to that kind of proposal? Through her work on the Client Protection Committee Atack is interested in seeing what can be done by way of regulating the capital adequacy of legal practices, but given the CPD rules she doesn’t see a need for additional requirements in order that people can remain in practice. “I have noticed though that more and more people are working on till older age, not having done succession planning, which is something I would like to develop for them too, a sort of holistic role for the Society. We certainly see with the Client Protection Fund that there are people who just want to give up but they need somebody to take over their practice. They just don’t know how to get out of it.”

Meanwhile there is less glamorous but nonetheless important work to be done. Private practice firms will have heard about the new requirements on the Society as regulator, under the Fourth Money Laundering Directive, and the new approval process for practice owners and certain others, in force from June 2018 (see p 48 of this issue). It means additional work for the Society as well as for those subject to the regime, though Atack is pleased that director of financial compliance Ian Messer has become the chair of the Legal Sector Affinity Group, the UK-wide body representing professional regulators.

Then there is GDPR, which comes into force ahead of Atack’s term, but means ongoing work to monitor it in practice: “It’s going to be quite a regime change.”

Tackling barriers

Asked about her personal priorities, she answers that she is keen to see the results of the successor to the 2013 Profile of the Profession survey. Profile of the Profession 2018 launched this month (see p 41 of this issue) and is being carried out by independent researchers, Rocket Science. It covers matters such as bullying, harassment and discrimination as well as basic career-related issues. The Society anticipates that it will produce much valuable data, and is encouraging all in the profession – including solicitors, trainee solicitors and accredited paralegals – to take part.

Equality and diversity in the profession is something else Atack wants to push for during her year in office, and I ask whether, with information now public about gender pay gaps in leading firms, she believes women still face greater barriers to career advancement than men.

“Yes, I do think there are barriers still. The survey will help us to understand better the shape and scale of the issue, but from the last survey some help was required to educate people.” The Society has since introduced its equality standards, the Parents in the Profession and last year’s Progression in the Profession campaign, “to try and highlight some of the issues and get people to talk about it and bring any experiences and concerns they had to us from their firms”.

She adds: “People coming back into the profession, there’s a gap at the moment really: there are more women going in at university level, then maybe up till their mid to late 30s, but after that the numbers start to fall away. It’s important to understand why. It’s possible that many do want to come back into the profession but aren’t fully versed on flexible working options. So we need to continue to provide support for both individuals and employers.”

One final thing Atack would love to see conclude is the much-delayed approval of the scheme under which the Society would regulate alternative business structures. Although a section of the profession continues to resist the concept of external ownership, Atack affirms her belief that ABS should be allowed to happen, with the Society as regulator. “What the takeup will be I’ve no idea, because there was a lot of enthusiasm and it’s taken so long to get to this stage. But we’re almost there, I understand, and there must still be a desire among those firms who wanted, for example, to promote their financial director to partner.”

Readers may find the next President coming to their own area. “I think there is a feeling that the Society is Edinburgh-centric, so our local faculty visits are a very good thing to do,” Atack affirms. Given her varied career in practice, she should be able to speak the language whatever her audience.

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