Tongue firmly in cheek, I told delegates at the start of the Society’s current series of roadshows on the Legal Services Bill that there was as much chance of me remodelling my firm as an ABS as there is of me joining the French Foreign Legion. Such has been the exchange of fire in the media since, the call of the desert has begun to take on something of an attraction!
The first of the successful roadshows was held in Aberdeen on 2 March. The same week, our Council decided to hold a referendum to resolve conclusively the Society’s policy on alternative business structures. Following that, a requisition for a second referendum on the Society’s dual representative and regulatory role was received. We are dealing with both issues at the same time as the Society collects responses to our consultation on ABS regulation and prepares to hold a Special General Meeting at the end of the month on the proposed reforms. All of which activity has fuelled an intense debate in the media – and I hope in solicitors’ offices around the country.
As a sole practitioner with an office on the high street (just off Central Way, in Cumbernauld new town parlance) and a workload that has shifted over time from defending clients in court to winding up their estates, I might be considered exactly the type of solicitor likely to be wary about the approach of alternative business structures. So why, given also that it is an option I am unlikely to pursue, do I wholeheartedly support reform of the legal services marketplace?
First, it is important to make it clear that the proposed changes are permissive rather than prescriptive. No firm will be forced to change business model as a result of the legislation, mine included. The current model will remain in place – for many, as effectively and successfully as ever.
Also, the legislation must maintain rather than undermine the high standards and core principles of the solicitors’ profession. The Society has argued strenuously on these points and continues to do so, for instance proposing amendments to the bill that protect independence and promote robust regulation.
Following a lengthy debate in Scotland and elsewhere, and the introduction of legislation in England & Wales, the Scottish Government made it clear in 2007 that “no change is not an option”. The Society consulted with its members, who voted in favour of liberalisation. And they did so because ABSs bring opportunities as well as challenges – the possibility of developing innovative new structures, the ability to access and reward the professional expertise of non-lawyers, the prospect of attracting external investment.
Alongside that there are concerns – what about access to justice, cherry-picking and competition from big business? But the solicitors’ profession and legal services market have changed dramatically since the formation of the Society 60 years ago. The profession is no longer made up of 3,000 lawyers in high street (or Central Way) practices and the market is subject to huge changes in consumer expectations, technological advances and cross-jurisdictional pressures.
Solicitors have adapted to change in the past and will do so again. Better to shape the future profession and marketplace ourselves, by remaining at the heart of the reform process, than leave it in the hands of others. Please make a start by using your votes and responding to our consultation.Ian Smart is President of the Law Society of Scotland