Richard Henderson: Imagination and initiative is key to profession's future

I JOINED the profession in 1969 – if you count the apprenticeship as part of my professional life, which I think is the right approach.

There were about 4,000 members of the profession then; there are now about 10,000, which is a measure in itself of how different the legal services market is now.

There was a Dr Finlay's Casebook approach to business then. Even Sutherland's Law was set in a simpler world, and certainly law was less complex. European law was an interesting prospect on the horizon, and human rights – well that was something for others and couldn't possibly apply to us could it?

Judicial review was 15 years away, and feudal reform, while probably desirable, was the stuff of pipe dreams. And as for devolution, it was barely in sight.

There was no mention of deregulation, "Big Bang", or most crucially, of the seismic changes that the "information superhighway" would bring.

The solicitors' profession has faced profound changes over the 30 years I have been part of it. Society has developed in an increasingly global market, with information from around the world at our fingertips, influencing our options and choices. Solicitors, working in house and in private practice, have responded well to change and provide a comprehensive range of services both domestically and internationally, for private clients and large corporations.

Despite the challenges, solicitors are providing access to justice for clients, often in very difficult circumstances in which resources are scarce and demand outstrips supply.

But change is a constant, and the pace of that change continues to gather. At the centre of that change lies the market, and today's market is a very different place not only in terms of scale but also in terms of scope and access. Greater specialisation has developed across the whole market spectrum to address changing demands.

The internet has revolutionised the market, and as a result, clients are developing, or will develop, a more demanding approach. Online services will be expected, even if for a long time face-to-face service is also required. Clients have the capacity to be better informed and will come for services knowing more of what they should receive.

That in turn will transform the services solicitors provide. Systematising the operation, commoditising the product, packaging legal services; all of these will mean that, inevitably, legal services will begin to look different.

Bespoke service will remain, but is unlikely to be the norm. The recession is proving to be a catalyst for that change. We will emerge from recession with more regulation; but we must avoid over-regulation that will stifle recovery.

Getting the balance right is a major challenge. Within the next ten years the changes will become obvious, as new markets open up along with new methods of working.

A highly respected and successful international solicitor recently told me that good use of technology means he can write opinions, keep in touch with clients in the office and research information wherever he is in the world.

Anyone can access the entire UK statute book, connecting to the freely available statute law database; yes, freely available, and free to all.

Against such a background of developing change in demand and delivery, the profession must be agile and respond quickly and appropriately. That means looking at how we are organised, whether our structures restrict or empower, and ensuring that our systems and processes respond as the market requires.

New business structures are already being developed. Internet-based clearing houses, directing clients to online providers, are opening up. It is a short step from there to clearing houses for multi disciplinary services.

The profession's success in the market will, as justice minister Kenny MacAskill says, depend on the imagination and initiative of the profession itself. But I know that the profession has both of those in abundance as it looks forward to the next 30 and 60 years.

&#149 Richard Henderson is president of the Law Society of Scotland.