Thanks to coronavirus, an event that might once have been exclusive to gentlemen in three piece suits has become one that could only be attended via BlueJeans – the technology chosen to support the remote presence of members around Scotland, and indeed even further afield.
With thousands potentially participating, what would the response be? Registrar David Cullen informed us that 115 had made the necessary advance registration; my screen told me 47 were linked in at the scheduled 5.30pm start time, 58 when President John Mulholland decided to proceed at 5.36, and between 60 and 64 for most of the hour and three quarters the proceedings lasted. Thirty had responded to the invitation to vote in advance.
If you remembered to register before the cutoff date, joining wasn’t difficult, though the instructions might have looked a little offputting to the novice videoconferencer. With attendees having control of their own cameras (most chose not to be visible) and microphones, the main issue was having to keep microphones on mute unless you wished to speak, otherwise noise and system feedback drowned out the business.
That sorted, the President requested a roll call, which took some 15-20 minutes. What if many more had joined? The technology does track who is attending, but perhaps it was as well to make sure on such a novel occasion.
Business itself was uncontentious, though as the advance voting was not unanimous on the three resolutions (approval of accounts, appointment of auditors and practising certificate fee), a further lengthy call was taken round those still to vote, who had to state “for, against, for”, or whatever. In the event, there were only a handful of dissenters, and the 20% cut in the PC fee to £460, a key plank of the Society’s COVID-19 support package, passed by 135 votes to four.
Business as usual
Otherwise business proceeded much as usual, though perhaps elements of the President’s address this year were particularly heartfelt. While he had known he would have a “big job” dealing with matters including the Roberton report, representing the Society and profession in the UK and abroad, Brexit and more, John Mulholland said solicitors were now facing “a personal and professional challenge none of us could have predicted”. But he was now even more impressed and inspired by those in practice, who had shown resilience and commitment.
The high regard for the Scottish profession around the world was reflected in the UK Supreme Court upholding the Court of Session in the prorogation case; and when the Lord President addressed the International Conference on Legal Regulation, hosted by the Society, he gave a “robust defence” of the present regime in Scotland and why it best protects the public. The Society was respected by Government as a “measured voice”.
But it was the response to the lockdown that the President particularly praised. Across the board, the Society’s teams had been at the forefront of offering practical solutions, and some committees had worked “flat out”, often into the night. “I have been humbled by the response from the earliest days of the crisis,” he stated.
On the Society’s £2.2 million package, “Doing nothing wasn’t an option... It shows the support we have always shown to members.”
One other “first” got a mention – the solicitor who brought her new baby to her admission ceremony. And yes, the child had slept soundly throughout; and yes, kissing babies was now also part of the presidential duties...
Concluding with warm thanks to the Society’s executive and his co-office bearers, he commended his Vice President and successor Amanda Millar: “If anyone can manage in the current circumstances, I know it’s you.”
Chief executive Lorna Jack said the President had shown “incredible leadership”.
Normally she would be telling us of the Society’s performance against its operating plan, but to have continued with that would have been failing in its duty to the profession and its clients. It was also right to pause and reconsider the next strategy plan, which had been at an advanced stage. Much had been learned about new ways of working without the need to travel; rather than slip back into old ways we should look for long term benefits.
She also reminded us of what had been achieved in the practice year (highlighted at Journal, May 2020, 42), and added her own thanks to staff and committee members for their tremendous work, with a special tribute to retiring head of Regulation, Phil Yelland.
COVID-19 has hit the Society’s education charity hard. Trustees chair Christine McLintock told the AGM that with major fundraising events like the Lex Factor Battle of the Bands, and Kiltwalk, postponed or cancelled, income to date this year would only support three or four deserving students, rather than the hoped-for eight. In its three years, 169 have applied for funding, and it would be “heartbreaking” to have to cut back. She appealed to every solicitor to donate £10; and the charity has launched an emergency “Save, Donate, Nominate” appeal to those saving money by working from home to pass on the extra cash.
See the Donate page at lawscotfoundation.org.uk
Peter Nicholson, editor, the Journal