Legal Review: The challenges and changes facing solicitors across Scotland

Graham Matthews, president of the Law Society of Scotland. Picture: Jamie Williamson
Graham Matthews, president of the Law Society of Scotland. Picture: Jamie Williamson

Solicitors join the legal profession for many reasons. The intellectual challenge and the sheer diversity of roles available in different areas of law or across different industries are attractive to many.

But perhaps the most common explanation for becoming a solicitor, at least in my experience, is a sense of fairness and a desire to help people at the most critical times in their lives, whether dealing with a family breakdown, facing criminal charges, buying a home or making a crucial business decision.

In other words, they are motivated by the greater good – solicitors really can change people’s lives for the better.

Of course, working as a Scottish solicitor also brings challenges. Access to justice remains a concern, particularly with a further cut in legal aid spending in the past year.

According to an independent report commissioned by the Law Society, this lack of investment risks eroding access to justice in communities around the country.

We have consistently raised the issue of underfunding with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Legal Aid Board, arguing that an urgent overhaul of the whole legal aid system is needed.

The Scottish Government’s decision to set up an independent review of legal aid provides an opportunity to reshape the system to ensure it helps those in need.

Solicitors in high street firms from Lerwick to Stranraer represent the backbone of the profession, helping people to resolve their legal issues every day.

It’s vital we have a system that allows people to obtain legal advice when and where they need it, regardless of their status or wealth – and that solicitors can continue to afford to provide this crucial service.

Along with a call for increased investment and less bureaucracy, we believe there needs to be better use of technology in the justice system.

Improved use of technology will bring more than just cost savings and we broadly welcomed proposals from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service in February to adopt more technology-driven processes which could radically reform Scotland’s summary courts.

Moving towards a digital future for summary justice is the clear direction of travel. However, as with legal aid, sufficient resources will be essential if the system is to function as intended.

Effective use of technology also offers obvious business advantages, increasing efficiency, reducing costs and allowing innovative ways of working.

But alongside these benefits, cybersecurity has become an increasing concern to solicitors.

We have provided a range of support services to members, conducting a technology audit of the profession, staging a 
technology and cybercrime conference in Glasgow and producing well-received cybersecurity guidance to help solicitors and their staff understand and avert cyber threats.

We also launched an online financial benchmarking survey, replacing the cost of time survey, which provides interactive reporting on a range of factors for participating firms, allowing them to assess their financial health.

Its findings provided evidence of improving fortunes for smaller firms in Scotland, although, overall, law firms are yet to see 
pre-recession profit levels.

Our annual plan for this year outlined 30 key projects to serve our members and their clients.

This includes providing a leading voice as the UK goes through the process of withdrawing from the EU, arguably the biggest constitutional change for the UK since 1945, and ensuring the interests of solicitors and their clients are heard as decisions are taken on a new relationship with Europe.

We have also pressed for modern and flexible legislation to replace the current patchwork governing solicitors, and that will protect the public and meet the needs of today’s legal profession.

Changing consumer demands and innovation within firms are transforming legal services but further change is needed to allow the legal sector to thrive and ensure robust protections are in place for consumers.

The Scottish Government’s independent review of legal services, announced in the spring, offers the chance to build a consensus on how reforms should be taken forward.

And while the Court of Session’s ruling on the handling of legal complaints with elements of both service and conduct brought welcome clarity to a complex issue, the case also underlined the need for reform.

So, as we plan ahead for 2018, 
with the publication of our annual plan this month [in November], pushing for new modernising legislation for the profession, ensuring we have a legal aid system we can be proud of and that works for all, and continuing to support and promote the work of Scottish solicitors are my overriding objectives during my remaining months as president.

Graham Matthews is president of the Law Society of Scotland