As we launch into another year, probably hoping against expectation that it will prove to be better than the one just ended, what can the solicitor profession learn from the past 12 months to help take it forward?
There is not much we can do about the economy, though now that most if not all firms have managed to reverse the downward slide of revenues and profits that took hold when the recession first hit, we can hope that they are better placed to withstand any renewed worsening of market conditions, as predicted for example in commercial property. Certainly the oft-repeated messages will continue to hold good about regularly re-examining your business plan to consider what strategies and ventures are working and what are not, what potential opportunities may exist locally, what services you may wish to promote to current or dormant clients etc, all to maximise your ability to catch any favourable breezes in your business sails.
There were however other notable aspects to 2011. The year opened with the painful process of the first round of legal aid cuts of the current spending squeeze, an unsatisfactory outcome in difficult circumstances, and the cause of considerable ill feeling as to whether a different/better outcome could and should have been achieved. Notwithstanding that, considerable efforts were made to heal the wounds (as they were in relation to those caused by the ABS and related debates in 2010), and the result of the talks with the Government over the summer in relation to the police station duty scheme was something of a triumph by comparison.
Just below the surface, however, the well of suspicion and mistrust remained, as was demonstrated by the row that blew up over the abortive ESTO Law venture this past month. Whether there was any impropriety involved in the sequence of events leading up to the launch is under investigation by the Society's office bearers, so no comment there meantime, but what was notable was the strength of the reaction, clearly founded on the conspiracy theory, to a service on the face of it designed to support rather than undermine the high street criminal defence practice. "Guilty until proved innocent" would not be putting it too strongly.
I fear the Society's "one profession" ideal will remain only an ideal as long as solicitors fail to accept in practice that they and their fellow professionals have all signed up to the same core values that underpin professional integrity. Of course there are individuals who betray these, and mechanisms exist to deal with conduct that brings the profession into disrepute. But behaving as a profession, to my mind, involves less casting the first stone, less pointing the finger at the first sign of controversy. If we demand due process for our clients, we should apply at least the same standards to colleagues with whom we disagree, or whose business plans take us by surprise.
So my wish for 2012 is that the profession's core values are enhanced by a fuller understanding of what it means to live by them. Happy new year.