How has Kenny MacAskill fared in the hot seat?

BY THE time the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) started looking at that Which? super-complaint in May, the political landscape had shifted - Labour were out and the SNP were in, albeit by a nose.

So a new justice secretary has been left with the task of responding to the OFT's recommendations and reacting to the legal profession's inevitable concerns about potentially seismic changes to the legal services market.

To an extent, Kenny MacAskill has been able to hit the ground if not running, then jogging. In the eyes of lawyers at least, he does enjoy one major advantage over Cathy Jamieson, his predecessor because, before switching careers to become an MSP in 1999, he was a practising solicitor for 20 years.

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The MSP for Edinburgh East and Musselburgh knows from past and relatively recent experience what it's like to be a lawyer dealing with the everyday challenges of demanding clients.

Combined with his experience of the legislative process in parliament, that should make him a seasoned legal veteran.

So as the profession awaits the Scottish Government's response to the OFT's recommendations with some trepidation, will he adopt a softer approach to the previous administration, once colourfully accused by the Law Society of Scotland of "naked lawyer-bashing"?

In other words, whose side will MacAskill be on?

Anyone attending the recent Law Society of Scotland conference on alternative business structures knows that there are several to competing interests to choose from.

Should he listen to big firms who want to compete with English rivals, or small firms who want to protect access to justice? Or middle-class consumers who want a better deal when shopping around for conveyancing services, or working-class people who can't afford to pay for a lawyer in the first place?

At the conference, MacAskill seemed to be trying to tread the very fine line between spelling out that change was inevitable - and without "endless" time to navel gaze on what exactly that change would be - and trying to convince the profession that he was still on their side. Up to a point, anyway.

Apart from a slightly clumsy attempt at a football league analogy - I'm not sure quite how many firms would like to be compared to the Old Firm, let alone Stirling Albion or Gretna - his speech appeared to be well-received.

He made the right lawyer-friendly noises about protecting and indeed promoting the integrity of the Scottish profession and the legal services market.

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He also made it clear that he was not afraid to go a different way from Westminster and would not "blindly follow" the Clementi blueprint.

Yet, given the recent spats between Messrs Salmond and Swinney and the Labour government at Westminster, over everything from the financial settlement to foot-and-mouth disease, MacAskill may have to reassure those who fear the Scottish National Party may seek to preserve difference from England for its own sake rather than the good of Scotland.

If he does seek to press ahead with reforms before Clementi takes effect in England at the turn of the next decade, he will need to show the profession there is a sound basis for change at such a fast pace.

MacAskill is now facing a tough test. He will have to weigh the profession's concerns and decide whether there is hard evidence that alternative business structures will harm the public interest. If he finds none, then firms will have to deal with the consequences.

But, however much MacAskill's brain still works like that of a lawyer, his instincts will be those of a politician. If it comes to the crunch, who is more important in winning votes - lawyers or consumers?