Legal Review 2023: Striking the right balance

Looking ahead, key considerations for the Scottish legal sector are set to be technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), energy and the transition to renewables, and environmental and social governance (ESG). Law firms also need to find the best ways to react to economic and political uncertainty. And there will continue to be a focus on diversity and inclusion.
The correct use of technology, including artificial intelligence, is a major concern for law practice. Image: Adobe StockThe correct use of technology, including artificial intelligence, is a major concern for law practice. Image: Adobe Stock
The correct use of technology, including artificial intelligence, is a major concern for law practice. Image: Adobe Stock

Advances in technology can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity for the legal sector. Effective use of AI can improve and streamline processes, allowing lawyers to focus on their day jobs, but some may be nervous about certain aspects of tech.

Allan Wernham, managing director (Scotland) at CMS, says: “The rapid advancements in AI need to be high on the agenda for law firm leaders. There are massive opportunities to combine the power of machines and people to provide efficient solutions for our clients. We certainly shouldn’t be scared of it.”

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Claire Armstrong, managing partner at Dentons Scotland, agrees that AI must not be overlooked. She believes the integration of AI streamlines operations, reduces costs, and allows law firms to pass on cost-saving benefits to clients.

Katie Russell, partner at Burges Salmon.Katie Russell, partner at Burges Salmon.
Katie Russell, partner at Burges Salmon.

According to Katie Russell, Edinburgh-based employment partner at Burges Salmon, AI will continue to offer both benefits and challenges. “Its potential to help law firms deliver more streamlined and efficient services is well known, but it will be important that firms look to deploy AI responsibly and with transparency, bringing their people and indeed their clients with them,” she says.

Turning to the opportunities offered by ESG, the energy sector and investment in renewables, Peter Lawson, chair of Burness Paull, says: “Energy remains a big economic and societal focus as we transition to net-zero, while also continuing to rely on traditional sources that ensure security of supply and underpin jobs and skills over the short-to-medium term.

“Scotland has all the ingredients to be a leading global energy centre and that creates opportunities right on our doorstep.”

He adds that supporting the growing renewables industry plays to many of Burness Paull’s strengths, in areas such as project finance and development, planning, construction, regulatory issues, commercial contracts, and sale and purchase agreements.

Andrew Blain, managing partner at Shepherd and Wedderburn, believes that with green recovery a core part of many clients’ agendas, his firm’s experience advising on some of the UK’s largest clean energy projects means it is well-placed to assist clients towards a more sustainable and resilient future.

Stuart McMillan, Edinburgh-based banking and finance partner at Burges Salmon, comments: “While private capital to support the infrastructure sector is getting more selective, and Scotland is competing internationally with markets in the Middle East and the US, there is no shortage of funds for well-structured infrastructure projects including sustainable transport, hydrogen production and heat networks to deliver on the country’s decarbonisation strategies.

“Our strong renewables industry also continues to be a beacon of Scotland’s ongoing success, and an area where new and future investment can be attracted.

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McMillan also hopes to see further investment opportunities coming from collaborations between the public and private sectors, which he sees as a fertile area for the infrastructure sector which can lead to more entrepreneurial approaches in a variety of areas from local energy transformation projects to large-scale initiatives like Green Ports.

Armstrong explains that ESG considerations remain a priority, creating a niche for law firms to specialise in that area to work with clients committed to sustainability.

And Wernham says: “Advising and supporting clients on the growing number of ESG requirements affecting their business is another area where there a rising demand, and one that legal firms will need to fully grasp to ensure they are relevant within the market place.”

While progress has been made in recent years, promoting diversity and inclusion remains a challenge for the legal profession.

The Law Society of Scotland’s diversity report for 2022-23 refers to a gradual move to a more ethnically diverse profession. For example, just over 86 per cent of the country’s solicitors are white, compared to 88 per cent in 2020-21.

Pinsent Masons partner and chair of Scotland, Katharine Hardie, says: “We have achieved a number of the targets that we set ourselves, ensuring greater female representation within the partnership and, in particular, at senior levels within our business – the appointment of Laura Cameron earlier this year as our first female managing partner is testament to that progress.

“However, we are not complacent and are aware of the under representation of black and ethnic minority lawyers and are taking steps to address that along with other long-standing initiatives which support greater social mobility.”

She adds that Pinsent Masons has a close link with equity and fairness group Black Professionals Scotland, and the law firm is looking to add to the four students who have recently completed work placements with them.

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It also works with the Lawscot Foundation to support the Street Law initiative, which takes legal education into schools and raises aspirations among pupils about a potential career in law.

Blain says: “In common with many law firms, we recognise there is more to be done to make the legal sector more diverse and we are committed to playing our part in effecting that change.”

He adds that Shepherd and Wedderburn believes in the power of its people to drive its success. “Over many years, we have built an environment in which colleagues from all backgrounds feel welcome and are given the opportunity to thrive. We are dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusivity, and each year we continue to make meaningful strides to bring about positive change that impacts not just our business, but also the legal industry and community.

“Diversity is a crucial part of our People strategy and is sponsored and championed by our chair, Gillian Carty.”

Armstrong says that diversity has improved, but retaining female talent in private practice – especially in transactional teams –remains a challenge due to the demands of the legal profession and the need for work-life balance.

She adds that efforts to create a supportive environment for female lawyers to pursue partnership positions must continue.

And she identifies social mobility as another challenge: “True progress requires active support and commitment from law firms, including opportunities, mentorship, and pathways for individuals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to succeed in the legal profession.

“Beyond gender and social mobility, ethnic and disability diversity in the legal sector remain concerns. To foster true diversity and inclusion, Scottish law firms should prioritise creating welcoming environments for individuals of all backgrounds.”

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Nick Scott, managing partner at Brodies, says his firm wants to make a positive contribution to the profession and its future direction, as well as support the development of the next generation of lawyers and business services colleagues.

He says Brodies has made progress in collaboration with colleague networks. Examples Scott gives include its Pride Women’s networks preparing a business case to stop the use of “Dear Sirs” as a salutation in formal correspondence, and the firm’s People Engagement team working with colleague networks to create an inclusive language guide.

Scottish law firms have identified a number of other things on the horizon for the next 12 months. Euan McSherry, head of dispute resolution at Aberdein Considine, observes: “From a dispute resolution perspective, new litigation funding rules have allowed our clients to pursue claims through innovative funding arrangements where previously they would simply not have been possible as a result of the upfront strain on their cash-flows.

“There is a small but knowledgeable number of litigation funders operating in Scotland. I anticipate the number of funders will increase in the next 12 months.”

McSherry goes on to say there has been a welcome increase in a willingness to explore, and use, mediation as an alternative to court litigation. “My hope is that it is driven, at least in part, by practitioners and parties coming to recognise that a mediated resolution can be more cost effective and be more durable than pursuing a court order,” he adds.

Hardie identifies measures contained in the Scottish Government’s proposed Regulation of Legal Services Bill as a concern. She says the legal profession’s view is that such a body would threaten the independence of the legal profession from political interference and hinder the proper administration of justice, while increasing costs for legal services for consumers and reducing access to justice.

She adds that she hopes the Scottish Government is taking on board widespread concerns and gives serious consideration tothe objections.

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