A lawyer's never loved in his own home land

WHENEVER Douglas Mill travels abroad on business, the warm welcome he receives as an ambassador for the legal profession in Scotland means a lot more to him than a polite token of respect. For Mill, the Law Society's chief executive, it also throws into sharp relief just how negatively the legal profession is perceived on his home turf.

"The Scottish legal profession is held in phenomenally high esteem - everywhere except Scotland," says Mill. "It's not just the profession that's held in high esteem but Scots Law, the Scottish legal system and the Scottish legal profession.

"These are three slightly different things but all closely related, and we are still looked at, for historical and other reasons, as a jurisdiction that deserves profound respect. Sadly - and it is a lack of understanding thing - in Scotland, at the moment, that respect is not there.

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"But you go abroad and you get the feel-good factor, and you come back to what I have to deal with five days a week - and you feel like opening your wrists and lying in a warm bath."

Such an exaggeration could be dismissed as characteristic of Mill's ebullient manner, but it is also a measure of the frustration he feels about the way the profession is regarded in Scotland. It remains to be seen whether any of the society's well-documented concerns about impending regulatory changes - specifically, the ramifications of setting up the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, as proposed in the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Bill - will be taken on board. The changes could not only alter the role of the society, but the future direction of the profession.

Perhaps Mill can console himself that he is not alone. As acting president of the International Institute of Law Association Chief Executives (IILACE), he is in regular contact with bar associations around the world, and he has noted that all are facing two common challenges, one internal and one external.

"The big internal issue is one that every law society has - of democratic legitimacy of the organisation through elected council members and representatives. Because they are busier people, the greater burden falls on those of us for whom this is the day job.

"The outward-looking issue is the whole question of the independence of the profession and the interface between government and profession. That is not just a UK issue with Clementi and the Scottish Bill, that is a global thing. There are jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada that are actually further ahead than we are, developmentally."

Delegates at the IILACE annual conference in New York this week will get the chance to debate these and other issues facing the legal profession around the world. Now in its eighth year, IILACE was founded in Edinburgh in 1999, as a fringe event at the Law Society's 50th anniversary conference.

"The first meeting took place in our council room," recalls Mill. "I don't take the credit for the initiative - it was a guy called Barry Fitzgerald from the Law Society of South Australia, who took the opportunity of piggybacking on our conference.

"It was the third biggest legal conference in the world that year - we had about 1,300 delegates from about 40 different countries - and Barry saw the opportunity to get CEOs to engage."

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The concept of an international association is far from new, adds Mill, but it has taken the cooperation between law societies to a global level. "The Chief Executives of European Bar Associations is now into something like its 48th year, but IILACE was invented on the basis that there were other jurisdictions that felt the need for networking at a CEO level, in particular the Australians, Canadians and so on.

"It started off as an English-speaking, Commonwealth-type thing, but it's gone beyond that. We have been to every continent, except South America. We can't tune into South America at all, which is very unfortunate. Beyond that we are starting to get pretty worldwide coverage."

He adds: "It is an annual conference and also a virtual organisation in terms of having a website and regular e-mail contact. We try to balance it between the work of a CEO, issues involved in running a law society, and so on, and some of the big geopolitical issues about independence.

"The main benefit is that it saves you reinventing other people's wheels - it's a good information-sharing network. Canada and Australia are the two relevant jurisdictions for me. They may seem much bigger countries, but they are not really - the Canadian provinces and Australian states are very comparable to Scotland in terms of population and numbers of lawyers."

For the first time, ILLACE is holding a conference independently of a host law society or bar association, and Mill says this is a sign of its growing international reputation.

"We always picked another conference to piggyback on. It is the first time we have not gone to a home law society - this is a make-or-break year for IILACE. We have 29 delegates and 15 guest speakers, which is easily our best ever."

The agenda includes debates about the role of the lawyers in contemporary society, the reform of the legal profession, and the relationship between the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Bush administration.

The two keynote speakers are Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit and a past president of the ABA, and Robert Grey, its immediate past president.

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"To get these two very significant international legal figures again I think is an indication that this is the year that IILACE came of age," says Mill, who will mark ten years as chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland in January.

But while IILACE appears to be growing in stature, Mill says the future standing of the Law Society and the Scottish legal profession and legal system remains less certain during a period of unprecedented change.

"The system was never perfect, but it has probably been unduly knocked," he says. "The profession, the law and the system are all up for change. But I think there is a concern that it is change for the sake of change, change without holistic understanding, without breadth, depth, and vision.

"That is what concerns us at the moment because, quite honestly, the respect that the Scottish legal system has attained around the world historically will be eroded and is eroding at the moment. There is no doubt in my mind about that."

But he adds: "It is a mark of the respect in which the Law Society of Scotland is held and that the Scottish legal system is held that I am chairing this conference. Our stock is still high internationally. I would hope we would continue to maintain the share value we have internationally - but we have got to fight to do so."

• www.iilace.org