Interview: Austin Lafferty, soon-to-be president of the Law Society
IN part one of a detailed interview as he prepares to become president of the Law Society, Austin Lafferty tells David Lee he is more than a song and dance man
AUSTIN Lafferty is the Chandler Bing of the Law Society of Scotland. He says this after I ask him to choose a suitable song for the Society, and he chooses the Friends’ theme, I’ll Be There For You, by The Rembrandts (sample lyric: “So no one told you life was going to be this way. Your job’s a joke, you’re broke…”)
I’m guessing Lafferty, who steps into presidential shoes next week, is thinking more of the chorus as a paean to the society’s representative role: I’ll Be There For You. Perhaps the twin song could be Let Me Regulate You by Robbie Williams?
Lafferty has often said the twin regulatory and representative roles of the Law Society sit happily with him – but he knows not all lawyers agree, and he knows the issue might well come to the boil in his year of office.
“It will be an irritant because what has been bubbling up and subject to debate is now being articulated with some substance and detail by those who wish to challenge the dual role – and the issues are coming much more into focus.”
Any change would need primary legislation and although Lafferty thinks this probably won’t happen, he would never say never. “I still think it’s unlikely the society’s fundamental role and remit will change, but two things make it less certain: one is the rise of the specific regulatory bodies like the SRA in England, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and even the society’s own regulatory committee. The second is those who oppose the representational role of the society are gearing themselves up for an intellectual challenge –though that might not happen in my presidency.
“There will need to be some kind of formal debate on the matter. I am not dismissing it at all – John McGovern [one of the chief critics of the dual role] lives on the same road as me and I count him as a friend.” [or a Friend – Ross or Joey, perhaps?]
“But as a pragmatist, I think if we tear apart the Law Society, we lose so much more than we gain. We’d be throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
While Lafferty understands that the dual-role debate needs to be engaged, he is less tolerant of the constant debate over the size of the society’s council (too large = over-bureaucratic, too small = anti-democratic) and the vexed question of the constitution. “I’m content with a council of willing, enthusiastic volunteers, who come in willing to debate the issues, helped and underpinned by a highly professional executive.
“The crucial thing is that we are available for any member of the profession that has a problem, question or opinion. The size of the council is not life or death – and I cannot get as worked up about the constitution as some other people. My experience as a lawyer and businessman is based on pragmatism – getting to Z by the shortest number of letters.”
And don’t get him started on the proxy votes that have characterised some key meetings: “I lose patience at the rather Byzantine activities at general meetings, with people queuing up holding a bunch of proxies sent by members who have no more than a general idea of what their nominee is voting for. We should either have one-man, one-vote (and move to electronic voting), or those who attend should debate, argue and decide. Proxies smack of preconceptions and an unwillingness to listen to arguments.”
Lafferty is more interested in real issues, such as legal aid, the onset of ABS and the challenges it brings – and simply serving the profession well. So what does he think the Law Society of Scotland is in 2012; what does it stand for?
“It’s the backbone of the legal profession, though some of the limbs might not see it that way. Before the Law Society, there was no unitary authority, no national negotiating power and no consistency – not just of regulation, but of conduct, ethos and practice. It’s absolutely essential to have a central matrix of authority, expertise, guidance, friendship and leadership – that’s what the Law Society is.”
But how does the Law Society under Lafferty’s leadership rebuild faith with its disconnected members?
“Members have always been disconnected, says Lafferty. They see the Law Society as far away intellectually and physically and do not want anything to do with it. Most solicitors do not want much regulation; they are honest and diligent and wouldn’t think about running away with the money. They think, ‘I don’t bother the Law Society and it doesn’t bother me,’ and that leads to disconnection.
“In these days of instantaneous IT, we have a better chance to reconnect with people than before. We have to stick together; these relationships are essential.”
Lafferty believes the society still has a strong tradition and brand, but said in a recent blog that it needs a little more “oomph”.
“The brand still has inherent strength but it needs revitalised. It’s not about throwing money at TV adverts, but the importance of the brand must be understood and promoted to existing and potential clients.
“We need to realise there is a brand question – if people think ‘solicitor’ first and foremost, everything else will follow. If they are just aware of legal services and start thinking of names like the Co-Op and Rocket Lawyer, and now even Eddie Stobart (the haulier recently announced it was providing a direct access barrister service), we will just be one of the players – but we are the brand, and we are market leaders by a long way.”
So what would add the “oomph”?
“Mass communication – e-mails, blogs, Law Society e-zines and websites, teaching children in schools about the legal system and profession.
“Solicitors are in every aspect of Scottish life and all communications must emphasise that. We want people to understand the name solicitor the way they understand doctor, teacher, dentist, politician. We want to be one of your five a day.”
But won’t this call for “mass communication” be interpreted by some as a Lafferty PR job? The incoming president, who describes himself in jovial passing as “a song and dance man”, says no: “I would like to think people will understand that I have been a solicitor for 30 years – and yes, I do like to do after-dinner speaking and humorous presentations and I know a lot of showbiz people.
“But I work nine-ten hours a day on conveyancing, court work, wills and so on. My interest in the outgoing stuff is over and above being a proper lawyer. I hope people don’t just think of me as someone who likes to talk a lot.”
Lafferty says he and outgoing president Cameron Ritchie were a good team – and that he and his VP, Bruce Beveridge, will be too: “Cameron was in charge of a large organisation and exuded authority over the workings of the society. Bruce also has experience as part of a large organisation. I have none of those skills but I have what might be called emotional intelligence. I understand people and seek to resolve differences – not by a rule book, but by fellowship, human nature and compromise.”
• Next week: Lafferty on Legal Aid, ABS and more.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east