Scottish solicitors are at the heart of a rapidly evolving legal sector. And important changes are taking place within the profession too. At the end of last year, figures published by the Society showed that the profession topped 11,000 practising solicitors and, for the first time, there were more female solicitors than male, at 51 per cent.
This is a trend which is likely to continue – of the solicitors admitted to the profession during the year, 64 per cent were female.
The fact that so many women see their future in the law is encouraging, though the changing profile of the profession presents its own challenges.
For instance, a significant gender pay gap exists and female solicitors continue to be relatively under-represented in senior positions.
In promoting equality and diversity in the profession, we have carried out a number of in-depth research projects and have an equality toolkit and equality standards for employers to adopt.
Our recent digital campaign “let’s talk progression” builds on this work. We want to spark discussion among our members on how best to tackle the issue and have published a series of insightful case studies and provided advice on career progression for solicitors at different career stages.
As well as promoting equality among solicitors, we must also ensure that the profession reflects the diversity of the public we serve.
To do that, the route to qualification must be accessible to men and women from all backgrounds.
However, despite there being no tuition fees in Scotland, the number of undergraduate students from lower socio-economic groups starting university in Scotland is significantly lower than in England, where there are tuition fees of £9,000.
In recognising that the Scottish legal profession should not become accessible only to those with the financial means to qualify, and following our review of fair access to the profession, we were delighted to launch the Lawscot Foundation in September this year.
The foundation, a registered charity, will offer financial assistance and – just as importantly – mentoring support to students from less advantaged backgrounds to help them as they study at university for a law degree or the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice. We already have close links with schools – not least, through the innovative Street Law scheme that aims to bring the law to life in the classroom – and the universities, and will build on those relationships to develop the foundation.
In September, we also launched a new student associate initiative as part of our Leading Legal Excellence strategy to open our door to those within the legal sector who are not qualified solicitors.
Student associates are the first affiliate category for the society as we want to give students the opportunity to get involved with their professional body at an early stage, encouraging them to build networks and experience, will prove valuable throughout their careers.
Solicitors have an important role to play in our society. Every day, whether as part of a high street firm or a multinational operation, they help people with some of the most significant events in their lives – such as buying a new home, securing a multi-million pound contract, dealing with difficult family or employment disputes or representing a client in court.
The legal sector as a whole contributes more than £1 billion and 20,000 high quality jobs to the Scottish economy.
In our annual plan for 2016-17, which takes effect this month, we have identified key areas of work to help provide the support and services our members need to ensure that the sector can continue to thrive both at home and in jurisdictions further afield – almost 1,000 Scottish qualified solicitors work outwith Scotland in 23 different countries around the world.
Of course, no review of the past year would be complete without considering the referendum decision to leave the European Union.
The UK vote to leave – notwithstanding the preference in Scotland to remain – has led to a great deal of uncertainty for all of us.
Despite more clarity on when Brexit is likely to happen, there still remain more questions than answers about the likely impact on our professional and personal lives at this stage.
We will closely monitor the UK Government’s negotiations with the EU, while also carefully considering the Scottish dimension throughout the process.
As laid out in our annual plan, an important area of work in the months ahead is to be a leading voice as the UK’s withdrawal from the EU moves forward, and ensure the interests of our members are featured – such as their residence and employment status and recognition of practice rights – as decisions are taken on the country’s new relationship with Europe.
Eilidh Wiseman is president of the Law Society of Scotland.
This article first appeared in the Scotsman’s annual legal review 2016.