The theme of this week’s Law in Scotland conference was “one profession”. And judging by the healthy numbers and diversity of practitioners who attended to discuss common challenges and collective responses, that message certainly struck a chord. But another theme also emerged – opportunity.
Our first keynote speaker, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, Roseanna Cunningham, set the tone when she highlighted opportunities for solicitors in the years ahead – not least the further development of Scotland as a jurisdiction of choice for alternative dispute resolution and the introduction of alternative business structures.
The opportunities that will arrive with the implementation of ABS were also highlighted in one of the sessions I chaired, with excellent presentations from Steve Carter, of business advisers Baker Tilly, and HSBC’s Donald Rankine stressing the need for solicitors to prepare for a new and potentially very different legal services marketplace.
The concerns of some sections of the profession are real and must be taken seriously. But many others believe ABSs will encourage innovation, better meet client needs and allow more flexibility to grow law firms, large and small. Recent figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority in England & Wales showed, perhaps surprisingly, that three-quarters of the new legal disciplinary practices – which allow up to 25% non-solicitor partners – were made up of fewer than 10 partners and were based outside London. A number of small and medium-sized firms south of the border have obviously recognised potential benefits in adopting a new ownership structure.
The Society’s conference also heard that the introduction of unrestricted rights of non-lawyer ownership in England & Wales has encountered challenges, with the SRA unable to move forward as a regulator until early next year. Our own Director of Regulation, Philip Yelland, told delegates that, while the Scottish Government continues to work hard to produce the necessary regulations and guidelines, the timetable in Scotland is also slipping, with the first ABS unlikely to be in place until next summer. The news was no doubt disappointing to some, though the new schedule at least allows firms more time to develop their business models – little consolation, perhaps, but nevertheless an opportunity in itself.Lorna Jack is Chief Executive of the Law Society of Scotland