Ahead of the Society’s 2021 Annual Conference, which runs online from 26-30 April, the Journal spoke to some of the principal speakers, for some tasters of the choice on offer – from business to boats

Business: the essential element

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for a good while yet, not least in the impact on the business environment. Tuesday’s programme reflects that, with a focus on the economy.

Tracy Black, director of CBI Scotland, is one of two panellists in the main session. She is clear that while, after a difficult decade, Scotland needs a recipe for enduring economic success, neither government nor business can deliver that alone. “We need to ensure that Scotland remains competitive by sending out clear signals about its status as a great place to live, work, and do business. Setting out a long-term tax strategy, reducing red tape and business costs, and promoting an open, data sharing culture where innovation can thrive, would all help in that goal.”

With the Holyrood election fast approaching, she calls for the economy to be front and centre of the political debate. “A strong economy that creates growth and good jobs is the only sustainable way of raising wages, improving living standards and ultimately securing prosperity for all Scots.”

One thing the pandemic has shown, she continues, is how fundamental business is to our way of life. “People’s jobs are about so much more than paying the bills – they create social connections, support good mental health and provide a sense of purpose.”

Despite the economic damage from the pandemic, with resulting loss of livelihoods, Black has a positive outlook. “There has also been real innovation. Firms have done amazing things to keep operations going and deliver for customers – some that will continue well into the future. Increased flexible working and working from home are clearly here to stay. Both deliver huge benefits in terms of reducing time lost to travel, promoting work-life balance and lowering stress, without harming overall productivity. But that doesn’t mean the era of the office is over. From training to collaboration, having a physical space to bring workers together remains an important part of working life.”

And professional services will play a crucial role in the recovery. “With Scottish firms increasingly looking to global markets for trade and investment, our world-class legal sector is essential to smoothing negotiations and contracts, as well as showcasing the UK’s hard-won reputation for fairness and rule of law.”

Racism: curse of our society

Conference opens on the Monday with a day dedicated to diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, beginning with a five-strong – and evidently diverse – panel covering wellbeing, issues for working parents, discrimination and bias, and the profession’s own equality deficit. But perhaps it will be a Friday keynote speaker who really makes us face some uncomfortable truths about our society.

Debora Kayembe, recently elected rector of Edinburgh University, has spent her life campaigning against barriers arising from gender, injustice and racism – first as a girl growing up in the Congo and seeking an education and a legal professional qualification, then in working to expose international business corruption in her country, and then after leaving for her own safety and seeking asylum in the UK, challenging the level of racism she found here.

“The most shocking thing I saw when I arrived in England was the condition of refugees and asylum seekers. I couldn’t find humanity in the way I was treated as a person, as a human being. It was shocking for me to see a very respected country like Britain treating people the way I was treated, and some people were treated worse because their level of education made it so difficult for them to adapt.”

After initially working to support migrants and refugees with language difficulties, Kayembe decided to re-enter legal practice. On being told that her original qualification would not be recognised in England, but would in Scotland provided she lived here, in 2011 she came north. Though not at present in practice, she has a full working life doing policy work with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, running her own charity, Full Options, which lobbies for social reform and racial justice, and now also as rector.

Sadly, she has continued to suffer racist abuse in Scotland. Asked what our society should be doing to combat racism, she responds: “The only way we can do it is through dialogue and tolerance. We need to open up to the other, listen to them, what is the motivation behind what they are doing, and get them to learn to know us. We have to have the occasions, the opportunities, to sit at a table and discuss these issues.”

She cites the “charrette” programme in North Carolina in the 1970s to smooth the path to school desegregation. “Encountering, speaking to one another, that is what will bring this down. Otherwise if you are just living in exclusion, in indifference, you are not going anywhere.”

As rector she wants to encourage students into voluntary work, “to fight their own bigotry, because more people giving themselves to others could reduce bigotry, and at university level it’s a perfect place to teach students how to be giving themselves to our society to make a better world”.

Breaking barriers will therefore be the theme of her conference address. “The reason why I travelled all the way from the Congo, to England, to Scotland, is because I wanted to reach out, I needed to reach out, by breaking the barrier that was in front of me. We need to break this barrier, and try to reach out to others. This is what I will be sharing.”

Trauma awareness: all benefit

Conference Thursday turns to Scots law, with the afternoon dedicated to the emerging subject of trauma awareness. Headlining this is defence solicitor Iain Smith, named Lawyer of the Year 2020 for his efforts to increase understanding of how childhood traumas can impact on future behaviour – and how the justice system should respond.

It’s something Smith asserts is relevant to every lawyer. “The reality is childhood adversity not only affects our clients, it affects our colleagues. For those dealing with conveyancing it’s said that house transactions are among the three most stressful events people ever incur in their life, and understanding trauma will allow you to respond in an empathetic fashion to someone who is feeling fraught, a bit nippy. Ultimately those who are aware of it will be better solicitors.”

Smith himself is a relatively recent convert, dating from his acquaintance with a film called Resilience, which revealed to him the science of the impact of trauma on the young brain. “It provided an explanation – not an excuse – for why an awful lot of people enter the justice system. So people who on one view are choosing to take heroin, are in fact still feeling trauma and pain by taking drugs effectively to escape. They have poor self regulation; often that is founded in overactive stress in childhood that they can’t control because their cortisol levels are so high.”

With that understanding, “it’s a futile system that we have which is focused on retribution and punishment. In my view we want to repair those harms rather than punish them, because you can’t punish anyone out of addiction”.

One of this month’s online articles explains Smith’s position further. At conference he will give a brief interview and then join a panel discussion with experts from home and abroad. First, however, there will be a screening of Warriors: Revisiting the boys of Ballikinrain, about the experiences of boys in a children’s home, and afterwards a Q&A session with BAFTA-winning director Stephen Bennett.

And finally... comic with a boat

Pushing the boat out a bit, as it were, conference ends on the Friday with a lighter keynote on a serious theme. Harriet Beveridge, self-styled “executive coach, broadcaster and comic”, labels her presentation “Will it make the boat go faster?” – which, it happens, is her business brand and the title of her co-authored book.

How did it come about? “The book I co-wrote with Olympic gold medallist Ben Hunt-Davis. It tells the story of a fairly mediocre British rowing crew who by doing some quite interesting things came round and got gold. Their mantra with everything they did was to ask, ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ That’s the essence of what we bring to individuals and organisations, helping them define what their gold medal is, and make their boat go faster.”

“People fascinate me”, she adds. “Ben’s a pretty normal guy, who achieved something extraordinary. I’m not sporty. I use his story as an inspiration to do things in my life.”

Coach and comic? She insists they are really very similar. “Comics will call out how daft we are as a species and how funny is the difference between what we should do and what we actually do. It’s the same in my performance coaching work: it’s the calling out.”

Beveridge is no stranger to the legal profession, which she also finds endlessly fascinating. “The requirement in the technical work is to be perfect, correct, accurate, and I find that quite often spills over into other areas, so I work with quite a lot of senior lawyers who have a perfectionist streak that is getting in the way of them moving forward. I think also that lawyers are big worriers, which again makes sense, because they need to cover all bases, but that fear can be a block and a barrier.”

What can people expect to gain from her talk? “Three things. Number one is pragmatic strategy. I want people to walk away with things they can do immediately to help their organisations flourish, their teams flourish, and themselves as individuals. So it’s highly practical. The next is around energy. It’s been a really tough year, so it’s about walking away with a spring in your step. And the third is inspiration. I hesitate to use that word because it sounds very cheesy, but Ben’s story I find pretty inspiring.

“My intention is to round it off on the Friday afternoon to make sure people leave with that energy and that practical action going forward – and hopefully raise a smile as well.”

What’s not to like? 

For the now final programme, attendance options, and to book, go to the Annual Conference page.

Annual Conference 2021

Our 2021 Annual Conference is fast approaching. Book your place now to take part in Scotland's leading legal event.

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