New kid on the Law Soc's block

IF TIME does indeed fly, then Richard Henderson might feel that it is travelling at something approaching a supersonic speed. His first interview as president of the Law Society of Scotland was pencilled in for next May but, following the sudden resignation of John MacKinnon last month, Henderson stepped up to the plate.

When his predecessor clearly felt overwhelmed by trying to balance the presidential role with his workload as a solicitor, Henderson might have been forgiven for feeling a degree of trepidation about taking over.

The decision was made easier by the fact he recently retired as solicitor to the former Scottish Executive, but Henderson acknowledges there is something of a leap between the responsibilities of vice president and president, and he hints this may be a issue for the society to consider in the future.

"The question is to what extent the office-bearers can be involved because of the changing world we are in, particularly in the profession," he says. "One of the challenges for the future is the level of involvement."

However, he stresses he believes practising solicitors do want to be involved in setting strategy, rather than leaving the bulk of such work to chief executive Douglas Mill and his team. "I detect there is a desire to be involved in change and a recognition change is something that is with us, and it is an opportunity and not a threat," he adds.

Change has been a hallmark of his time on the society's council. Henderson's decision to become a co-opted member in 1998 came at a time of seismic political change and he wanted to make a contribution during the early years of devolution.

"I thought then that government lawyers had a lot to offer," he says. "Historically, we have not really been involved in the business of the Law Society, but it was the point at which devolution became a reality and I thought that they should be involved with the professional body."

While Henderson is not the first lawyer with an in-house background to be president, he is the first government lawyer to fill the post. Given the somewhat fraught relationship between the society and the former Executive over issues such as complaints handling and legal aid, his understanding of the workings of the civil service may help.

However Henderson (who was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath in the new year's honours list), acknowledges that much is different even in the short period since he stepped down.

"Quite obviously it is true to say the dynamics of government are somewhat changed," he says. "I don't think that will preclude the continuing involvement of government lawyers. Given the way the agendas of government and the Law Society often interact, there may be some advantage in my being a government lawyer - I don't see it as a disadvantage."

Henderson will certainly have a different perspective from the majority of past presidents, most of whom have been solicitors in private practice. After qualifying as a solicitor in 1972, Henderson joined the Scottish Office, rising to solicitor to the secretary of state for Scotland in 1998 and becoming solicitor to the Scottish Executive in 1999.

Except for a three-year stint on secondment to the Scottish Law Commission, Henderson has worked in government for his entire career. While he comes from a different background to MacKinnon, the short-term agenda is already set. He identifies three key strands as priorities: governance; education and training; and standards.

Work to set standards is probably top of the list and is closely linked to the imminent opening of the new "gateway" for service complaints, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. But Henderson insists the profession would have addressed this issue with or without the advent of the commission and points to existing "quality marking" schemes such as the society's accreditation of specialists. He also sits on the board of the new signet accreditation scheme launched by the WS Society.

"It has been a vexed question over the years," he says. "I don't think the commission is the sole driver but it is indeed a catalyst."

A working group has been formed to draw up options for consultation next year. It is a time-consuming process, and one critics might argue is long overdue: an "arid debate" as far as Henderson is concerned.

The fact the society won't have developed a set of standards before the commission starts looking at service complaints does not worry him, he adds: "The intention is we should be in a position to offer statements on standards to the commission, when it goes live, can have some indication of what the profession thinks."

The implications of the OFT's response to the recent Which? super-complaint and the advent of alternative business structures, which will be debated at a major Law Society of Scotland conference later this month, will also require the society to grapple with some difficult issues. Henderson recognises the need to balance the economic arguments for firms to be able to compete on a level playing field with their English counterparts with concerns about the impact on smaller firms serving rural areas.

As Henderson will remain president until May 2009, he will be in the unusual position of having almost double the normal length of time to make an impact, and is keen to get other members of council to play a greater role: "The important thing is the profession is able to respond to the future and anything I can do to assist that is what I am here for."