Future's bright if we keep traditional legal values

Scotland's legal fraternity has always proved it can embrace change. The wig and quill pen has given way to the tablet and iPhone, while the need to find new ways of working and serving clients has accelerated as law firms have struggled to find fresh revenue streams.

Since the early 2000s, the legal landscape in Scotland has been transformed with many venerable names consigned to history. High-volume, low-cost generic legal ‘advice’ is freely available online, though it’s never advisable to use any of the ‘download-a-contract’ apps that can undermine proper advice. Increasingly, as the corporate and business world has become more complex, so too have the specialisms that have flourished. Who would have thought inter-stellar space law would become a speciality in Scotland?

When I look back in my own field of employment law, some of my contemporaries raised a learned eyebrow when I set up Mackay WS, later Mackay Simon WS, almost 30 years ago to pursue issues impacting on the world of work. Today, employment law is one of the fastest-growing areas of legal work with a panoply of legislation that has made the workplace a safer and fairer place.

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In Scotland we have a rich tradition of towns and larger villages having a local solicitor who knows the community and how it works. But with the continuing revolution in legal services fully under way how does the local lawyer survive?

Most locally based lawyers I know across Scotland do a great deal more than dispense legal advice. They sit on community councils, run Rotary clubs, help local charities. They are wise local voices.

We hear a lot about digital predators, fast-moving and adaptable legal businesses pitched against rigid structures of traditional law firms. In my view, there is another way. Certainly, new technology must be applied to offer better-value services, but you simply cannot replace solid client relationships.

Scotland’s law firms are smart enough to appreciate this. Easy relationships can be built quickly in the digital space but, without substance, are also quickly destroyed. Furthering the interests of your client must be the heart of all legal work. That takes time and input. It is about giving the individual and business good value access to legal advice. And here I make a plea for Scotland’s high street lawyers. Many have survived for hundreds of years. It’s too rose-tinted to want to turn the clock back to when the local GP, district nurse, dominie, parish minister and notary were the pillars of the community. However, I think it would be wrong to wipe away local lawyers who continue to play a fundamental part in people’s lives. I can see a progressive, glowing future for innovative high street firms. They have the ability to adapt and have the most important assets – trust, a loyal client base and local presence. Internet and changing working patterns mean more individuals and small businesses need local services in complex areas such as employment law.

While firms need the courage to break free from the old rigid law firm business model and adapt to change, they must stay true to the values of the legal profession. They can thrive locally by using technology to access specialist expertise, as and when it is required. Why should anyone living in Blairgowrie, Wick, Ayr, Galashiels or Oban have to venture to the big city and pay the price? Much access to legal advice is better done locally.

With United Employment Lawyers, we offer a specialist service that equips local lawyers to do what they do best – serve local businesses and communities and do so by collaborating and connecting with national expertise. The business model also enables them to combine to deliver to national clients. Technology is a facilitator but the client relationship and quality of advice remain paramount.

Malcolm Mackay is founder and chairman of United Employment Lawyers.