After the legal aid sole practitioner comes the private client leader in one of our national firms. The presidency of the Law Society of Scotland certainly reaches across the practice sectors.
Come the end of May, it will be in the hands of Murray Etherington, head of department at Thorntons and a real enthusiast for his calling. In fact he has known he wanted to be a lawyer ever since primary six, despite not having a legal or other professional family background.
Not that he immediately turned to private client work. A diminutive but outgoing character, Etherington found his true place in the law only on returning to the Diploma after a spell in banking following his degree, and discovering the client dimension. “At university, the client’s not really there. You study lots of legislation and case law but they never put the client front and centre. That happens in the Diploma, and the minute the client got involved, I would describe the law as becoming technicolor or 3D – it became really interesting, and that’s I think where my interest in private client came from, because it’s not just transactional but about building relationships, long term relationships with people. I really enjoy building relationships.”
Now in his ninth year at Thorntons, for the past five years he has led a department that currently turns over £10 million through its 150 staff. “It’s quite a big job but I’m surrounded by very interesting, very able and very supportive colleagues.”
To add to the chalk and cheese contrast with his predecessor Ken Dalling, he cheerfully admits: “I’ve never been in court, ever! [Lord Advocate] Dorothy Bain laughed when I said I hadn’t been in court as a witness or indeed the accused! And one of the reasons for wanting to be President is that I feel chamber practitioners have been somewhat underrepresented – there have been lots of litigators, which you would understand, but I would like to fly the flag for chamber practice.”
He should not, however, be thought of as having a narrow outlook. One key position Etherington has held, which he believes has given him a key insight into the workings of the Society as well as of legal firms, is convener of the Insurance Committee. “It really has been incredibly rewarding, both within the Society but also professionally. The big focus is the Master Policy, and risk management has become a huge factor in that, because that allows us to make it self sufficient and something that insurers want to get involved with. So I take the risk management information I have been hearing about back to my business and I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk in the department as well, and it’s been phenomenal and way more exciting and challenging than I initially thought. Through the Insurance Committee you also get the chance to speak at Council on various points and it gives you a bit of a profile.”
As Vice President for the past year, he has had much to do also with the contentious matter of the Scottish Government’s regulatory consultation. Like everyone at the Society, he recognises that its future direction hangs on the Government’s conclusions. Among other things these will shape the Society’s next five year strategy, due by the autumn: “You can’t get away from the regulatory aspect. We do need to wait and see what the Scottish Government is going to say around that, because that will obviously have a major impact on where we are and what we do.”
Left to its own devices, the Society would not be radically altering direction. “Nothing has massively changed from the strategy that we had in place, but it’s obviously necessary for it to be reviewed and with Diane McGiffen coming in as chief executive she will have different priorities, but my take on it very much is that it’s more nuance than rip it up and start again.”
Despite his lack of court exposure, legal aid practitioners need not fear about Etherington not having their back. “You can’t become President of the Society without understanding the impact of legal aid and the lack of support for legal aid over the last decade if not longer,” he immediately responds when asked what he sees as the main issues of the coming year. He will of course be well supported on the subject. With Dalling as Past President and incoming Vice President Sheila Webster, a commercial litigator, he is intent on making his term “a team year rather than a me year”. That will include his predecessor continuing to have a high profile in his areas of strength: “Ken is incredibly knowledgeable on legal aid, incredibly passionate about it as well; he’s an absolute Trojan.”
But Etherington is realistic about what can be done to influence the Government. “I’ve watched Ken go in to bat in various meetings with ministers and Government officials. I don’t know how much more we can make the points to Government and make them listen. Ken in particular has tried as hard as anyone, and in terms of supporting the profession we managed to get the trainee fund through last year, but the big issue we have is that it’s not a level playing field. The Crown are being far better funded than the defence, so people are leaving the defence bar. I suspect that until the Government starts seeing that people can’t be represented – and solicitors have been incredibly resilient and doing a lot more than they get paid for – it maybe isn’t an issue for them. But at some point the finger is going to come out of the dyke and it’s going to be a real problem. I’ve seen Ken explain this time after time in very clear English to people, but it just does not seem to resonate.”
Legal aid apart, Etherington names the SLCC as another main issue for his year of office. Challenging its apparent position that complaints are a growing problem, he explains: “I have watched what we have achieved on the Insurance Committee; I have looked at the numbers in terms of complaints going down, claims going down; I’ve watched the profession become far more engaged on a risk management platform; and yet I see press releases and comments from the SLCC that sound as though we are slipshod and the profession not doing their job, and equally the Society not doing a regulatory job, and I just don’t find that at all.
“I think we need to work with the SLCC to get them to focus on what’s important, and that is a complaints system that works for the consumer and for the solicitor, rather than them trying to broaden their remit, which seems to be their focus.” It’s a growing concern, he says, because “In the last few months we have probably seen an increase in the rhetoric. Partly that may be due to there being a message about regulatory change, but for me it has to be based on evidence and I’m not seeing an awful lot of that evidence.”
Routes to qualify
Looking at the profession in Scotland as a whole, Etherington believes its general health is quite strong at present. “Firms came through COVID far better than we initially anticipated. There are a lot of jobs out there for young solicitors as well, so it’s good to see that the route from trainee jobs through to NQ jobs is strong as well. So by and large it’s a very positive picture at this time.”
Is the recruitment market, with the current war for talent, not creating its own problems, I ask him? Does it suggest a need for more new solicitors, and for alternative routes to qualification to be opened up if not enough traineeship places can be made available? Etherington professes himself “a big fan” of alternative routes into the profession, having seen paralegal colleagues go on to qualify.
“If there was a different route to the Diploma where we could put them through training that way in-house, I would be all for it; that would be incredibly useful. The more we can open that up, that goes to the heart of diversity, being able to get different types of people into the profession. So alternative routes to coming though for me goes almost hand in hand with the diversity angle, and whether we have the current job market or not is something we should be looking to push anyway.” The Society is working on it, so watch this space.
Coming to an event near you?
With his enthusiasm for getting to know people, Etherington is keen to get around the country and meet solicitors face to face, something he believes members would welcome again despite the lockdown benefits from Zoom meetings. “I know it’s difficult to find the time when you are working long hours and then the Society comes along and wants to speak with you, but I think from the roadshows that I did as Insurance Committee convener it was incredibly important to go out to areas that maybe hadn’t been visited before, or not in a long time, and speak to people and listen to them. Listening is the most important factor because the men and women on the ground, at the coal face, can tell us what it is that they need, and if we as a member association can understand what our members need, then we can put things in place for them and that should again help with engagement.
“So for me looking at how we get back out and speak to our members, both online and offline, is something that I’m really keen to do this year and see how we can get the engagement levels up. Because we’ve been through a really tough couple of years and even in my day-to-day work I’m seeing more people stressed, maybe not having the same ways of decompressing that they had previously, so to be able to give people opportunities to speak, for us to recognise there are challenges, to put in place support, that is really important.”
While he would like to restore in-person contact, he recognises the benefits from hybrid working and is determined that the Society looks carefully at how it operates now that COVID restrictions have eased – recognising the significant cost savings that have resulted from reduced travel and other spending. “I don’t want us to be wasting members’ money. The question of why are we doing something and what is the cost, is something that I really want to bring to the role, because it’s what I bring in my day-to-day job, challenging whether something is the right thing to do, and if it is, is it the right way of doing it. Because nowadays there are multiple channels we can use and some may be much more cost effective than others. So actually I think it’s quite exciting, quite interesting to be there, because you are able to shape what the future might look like.”
“I suppose I just feel very humble that I’ve been given the opportunity to become President,” he concludes. “It’s not about me: it’s about how the Society can progress, how we can make best use of our assets here and how we can put ourselves on a footing where the profession feels represented and supported. We are never going to please all of our members all of the time, but if I can leave them feeling at least comfortable with our direction of travel, that would be good!”
Although he has lived in Dundee since he began his law degree there, after taking a liking to the University of Dundee campus on a visit, Murray Etherington was schooled in Dumbarton and remains “proud to be a Glasgow boy”, certainly as respects retaining his loyalty to Celtic FC.
A father of two, his spare time is otherwise taken up with “incredibly bad” golf, and child-centred pursuits such as climbing and video games.
“I’m pretty standard to be honest,” he says self-effacingly. “The only thing is if I go on holiday I tend to do daft things. I was in Cape Town in November and I went swimming with sharks; the year before when I was in America I tandem skydived from 18,000 feet. I like to do things like that, but only once a year… The closer you are to death the more alive you feel, you know!”