A week is a long time in the ABS debate, as Harold Wilson would surely have said if he had still been around to observe it.
Consider this. Two weeks ago, this month's Journal went to press. It was soon after the Scottish Parliament's stage 1 debate on the Legal Services Bill, with its strong appeals from MSPs for the profession to try and reach a consensus position, and the Society's decision to modify its policy on ABS following the SGM vote.
Shortly before we went to press, I asked the President of the Scottish Law Agents Society to comment on the Society's move. The reply, which you can now read for yourselves, welcomed the change of policy, a "significant shift" which was due to the "successful campaign" by SLAS, adding that the SLAS council would discuss its reaction "and is likely to seek views of its members on this positive development".
By the time the Journal came out, 10 days later, the tone was very different. Now we have strident warnings from SLAS that in effect the Society's position has not changed at all and we are about to be engulfed by Tesco law, complete with some kind of regulatory meltdown within the legal profession - accompanied by a mass mailing campaign to drum up support at the AGM.
It can readily be agreed that the ABS debate raises fundamental issues. However it is much harder to accept the assertion that the "solution to this situation which could and should re-unite the solicitors’ profession" is to reaffirm outright opposition to ABS. (SLAS itself has already lost one President over the issue, and it can be seen that others than the President are now making the running.) Like it or not, there are probably as many solicitors who support reform as oppose it (the number who did so in the first referendum must go well beyond the "big firms"), and the fact that the "Masters amendment" which is now Society policy was also born of a desire to keep the profession united, shows that the approach to unity is viewed very differently on each side of the fence.
Nor is it just a question of unity. MSPs intend to legislate (I was speaking to one just last night), in full knowledge that the issue has proved divisive, and if solicitors want to have a chance of influencing the final shape of the Act, they will have to provide a clear steer as to the way forward. As one member put it in the stage 1 debate, "we must face the world as it is and not as some people would like it to be".
The other night I was at a round table debate hosted jointly by the Journal and CA Magazine, with participants from a range of Scottish legal and accountancy practices as well as the two professional bodies. The discussion, which will be reported in next month's Journal, disproved the notion that there is a single view of ABS among the bigger firms and that their partners are all just waiting to cash in on a flotation.
In fact there were differing predictions as to the impact of ABS in practice (such as "not much", or "maybe if one jumps, more will"). But all (from larger and smaller firms) were clear that the opportunities were greater than the threats, and that solicitors had to be able to respond to the increasing competitive pressures from others already in the market. With clients in all sectors looking for "more for less", firms had to be able to devise innovative solutions.
Solicitors will have their own opinions on how far should we travel, if we go down that route. The group was there to air the issues rather than reach a common view. But when those who are already regulated under different regimes (Law Society of Scotland, SRA and FSA, for example) say their default position is to adopt the highest standard imposed, in order to comply with them all, it is difficult to go along with the apocalyptic view that a reform that retains majority professional ownership is heading for disaster.
The AGM vote is indeed a crucial one. All the more reason to keep a level head as we decide how to vote.