Tell us about your career so far?
I completed my law degree and diploma, and having turned down a traineeship when they weren’t exactly plentiful in number, I took a step back and asked myself what that picture was telling me. From this distance, I think I was looking for something that chimed more obviously with my values. (Now of course I realise I just wasn’t looking in the right places within the law.)
Either way, I ended up becoming a trading standards officer, which involved law enforcement, postgrad study of regulation, science and statistics, advising businesses, and helping consumers. The variety was tremendous, and I got to work with many dedicated people trying to do a lot with increasingly little.
Some years later, a university was looking for a lecturer, who had to be a Scots law LLB with a specialism in consumer protection, which certainly narrowed the field. Still not sure how I got the job, but I give thanks to this day that I did. I would recommend lecturing or tutoring to anyone who wants to deepen their subject understanding. As well as taking you back to your roots, it will challenge you to know your subject in a way which allows you to communicate it to those meeting it for the first time.
I’ve been in academe ever since, though my teaching and consultancy now major in mediation and negotiation. Again, I’ve been very lucky, as I’ve worked in a vast range of places, from Belfast to Shanghai via the Channel Islands and Airdrie football stadium, and with some fascinating people and organisations.
How did you become involved with the Society?
Solicitors play a huge role in helping people across Scotland, often at the most difficult or challenging times in their lives. I was passionate about the idea of helping the Society ensure trust in the solicitor profession stays strong, that standards remain high, and that clients get the help they need, when they need it.
I also had experience of committee and governance work from my student days onward. I sit on two mediation organisation boards as a volunteer non-exec, and had a term as a director of Citizens Advice Edinburgh. Through these and my Society committee role, I wanted to make a contribution if I could, in a domain where I hopefully knew at least a little to begin with.
Before I joined, I understood from undergrad days the dual role of the Society, and the significant role it would play in the careers of many of my classmates, some of whom amazingly still speak to me to this day.
My initial interest in service was probably via the policy committees: I sat for a time as a lay member of the Consumer Law Committee. So I learned something of the structure, and the massive largely volunteer contribution from diverse backgrounds to maintaining standards and striving for public confidence in Scotland’s solicitors. But that was just scraping the surface…
What have you found most interesting about the Regulatory Committee’s work?
Where to begin? Probably the people. I once met a top flight football referee who said that he loved the game, but was no good as a player. Becoming a referee allowed him to witness, closer than almost anyone else, just how brilliant these athletes were. As convener of the Regulatory Committee, I often feel the same way. There are a lot of smart people involved in the work of the Society – committee members, office bearers and staff – and I get the best seat in the house as they debate and decide on a fascinating range of important topics.
What are the main issues that you think the Society has to address at the moment?
From a regulatory perspective, COVID required adjustments of budgets, strategy, and operations, to allow the public protection and other regulatory purposes to carry on. It is tribute to all committee members and staff that regulatory work continued effectively throughout the pandemic.
We urgently need to improve the complaints system. The current setup simply is not working, not for complainers and not for the solicitors complained against. So many processes are hardwired into primary legislation, creating a rigid and cumbersome structure. It means the whole system is slow, complicated and, for a jurisdiction the size of Scotland, very expensive to operate.
I hope we will get some reforms early in 2022, particularly to speed up the gateway and eligibility stages. However, this needs to mark the start of wider reform that ensures complaints are dealt with much more quickly and proportionately. That will be good for clients who want their complaint resolved, and good for solicitors who are impacted by having complaints hanging over them for months or years.
The Scottish Government’s consultation on legal services reform is obviously a key priority too. We have to show the major role which lay members play in the Society and in taking regulatory decisions. We have to challenge, head on, the misinformed argument that the current system is “lawyers marking their own homework”. The reality is that we have an effective system of co-regulation, with public interest lay members involved throughout in a way that consistently delivers high standards and consumer confidence.
The consultation presents both risks and opportunities. The risk is the possibility of a new quango regulator. Many professions now labour under externalised, arguably alienated regulatory models that do more to command and control than to work with members to achieve public confidence. This might be unfortunate in other cases; for lawyers, with their precious constitutional role, it would be disastrous for society.
I want to use the consultation to push for the kinds of changes the Regulatory Committee has championed for years: a proper system of entity regulation, addressing the unregulated legal services market which leaves consumers at risk; and greater powers to step in and suspend a solicitor when wrongdoing is uncovered. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect further on how we better demonstrate that our regulatory model is independent, transparent and accountable within a scheme of professional body co-regulation.
There is so much we can do to continuously improve legal regulation without ripping up existing structures.
If there was one message regarding the Legal Services Review that you could get across to the Scottish legal profession, what would it be?
Get involved. The consultation will benefit from a wide range of voices being heard. The case needs to be made as strongly as possible, why profession-led co-regulation, fit for the 21st century, is the best way to serve the membership, the public and consumer interests too.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
Since lockdown I have been one half of our cat’s 24/7 domestic service. I play drums and piano, both badly but thankfully never both at once and always with headphones on. I very occasionally do a bit of comedy writing, and recently took a drawing class to undo the historical injustice of being disallowed from doing art at school on the spurious ground of inability.
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