Alistair Morris: Legal profession in need of boost

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A QUICK straw poll of solicitors I know found that around half felt pessimistic about the future. For them, the profession has changed beyond all recognition and the vision they saw for themselves when young trainees is nowhere near the current reality.

Behind this lie both the realisation and the acceptance that the balance of power for lawyers has changed and now sits squarely with the consumer.

Of course, the counterbalance is that the other 50 per cent in my very unscientific survey were optimistic about what lies ahead and these are the solicitors who are not only willing to change, but also look forward to it.

In tough economic times, the certainties all solicitors once shared in terms of job security and career path have gone. Business no longer comes knocking at the door; it has to be won. Sons and daughters do not automatically use their parents’ lawyer as they once did and the very nature of what we do is being forced to stay relevant in a marketplace that is opening up to new competition and new pressures.

The biggest shift in the legal profession over the past few years has been that clients’ needs must come first. We, as solicitors, have to be accessible to our clients, available when they want, and learn new interpersonal skills to make them feel at ease and comfortable.

Our new client lounge in Edinburgh’s George Street, lends itself more to a relaxed coffee shop than the imposing wood-panelled boardrooms of old.

The clients still need the keys to their new home on time and their legal documents drafted perfectly, but this is now expected; a “given”. What the clients pay for is the added value: the understanding of their needs and the flexibility to meet their demands.

We can no longer get away with shaping a profession from our own technical perspective; we have to see our services and our behaviour through the eyes of the customer. And for those who embrace change, here lies the excitement that breeds their optimism.

The complexities of people’s lives will never diminish. In reality, aspiration, wealth, tax, families, older generations and new all grow more and more complicated and solicitors are in a prime position to help. In business speak, this is our market.

We have the relevant expertise and therefore, the opportunity to adapt and extend our skills to match modern challenges.

New markets are also opening up for solicitors. The ageing population needs legal services as never before, to protect what they have and plan for all eventualities of a long life. Care at home, care homes and medical treatments are an ever-increasing inevitability which require guardianships, powers of attorney, trusts and tax planning.

Social media didn’t exist five years ago, and yet now a whole spectrum of society is falling foul to its seductive powers: politicians re-tweeting defamatory comments; young people sucked into scams; or even the families who suddenly find themselves unable to access or close down a loved one’s online life upon their death.

Rather than be irrelevant, the legal profession is fundamental to a rapidly changing world and a legal training is still seen as the foundation to a business career.

Critically, however, to harness this optimism and these prospects, it is essential to stick to the values that have served us well in the past and not chase short-term gain for long-term loss. Our open and fair society is protected by the Rule of Law and access to justice for all. A strong, independent and trustworthy legal profession is critical to this.

With profound change in the air, traditional values are more relevant than ever. It is incumbent on the Scottish legal profession to embrace the transfer of power to the consumer but it must also respect its continuing role in wider society.

More importantly still, it must be confident about the future. I can only see opportunity for the legal profession going forward. It will certainly look different, but that can also mean better. Greater competition provides greater consumer choice and greater consumer power drives innovation in terms of service, price, delivery and transparency.

• Alistair Morris is CEO of Pagan Osborne