Law firms merit a place on high streets

Picture: TSPLPicture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
Local lawyers are part of our towns, says Malcolm Mackay

The renowned architect Malcolm Fraser and his advisory group have made some excellent recommendations in their review of the future of Scotland’s towns. But I would respectfully suggest there is a serious omission that requires inclusion – the evolving role of local high street law firms, the first port of call to justice in so many Scottish communities.

There is plenty of discussion about “Business Improvement Areas” and “Digital Footprints” but not a single mention of the vital role of the local legal profession. The review suggests that Folk, Work and Place are the themes for thriving High Streets across Scotland. But surely “Local Advice” should also be included, as well as a proper understanding and appreciation of the part played by local law firms.

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The historic growth of many of Scotland’s market towns is down to the “feein” or hiring markets where those looking for agricultural work would be signed up under statute for work for six months. Local sheriffs had the power to compel the payment of wages – the beginnings of labour law in Scotland. The growth of local law firms – and it is astounding how many local Scottish firms are over 100 years old – comes in part from the increasing legal requirement to formalise this process, giving securing of tenure. Local law firms, with their estate agency and conveyancing services, are the 21st century legacy of our land and feu system that has evolved since the Middle Ages.

Good local lawyers woven into fabric of our towns

Perhaps the public think that lawyers earn vast amounts of money and can look after themselves. This is not the case. Law firms in Scotland have undergone the same kind of transformation as many major industries. In the big cities, large law firms have been merging and consolidating and the digital world has made standard legal transactions more accessible and less costly. It is far tougher to make a living running a local law firm than it was 25 years ago.

Yet good local lawyers are woven into the fabric of our towns. They have accumulated expertise that is based on local insight and understanding. The partners and associates often have skills and knowledge that might well earn vast amounts of money should they choose to work for big city firms. Instead, they make a conscious choice to live and work in their own communities. They are often active members of their local chamber of commerce; office bearers in the Rotary clubs; advisers to faith groups; secretaries of golf clubs; and undertake pro bono work for local charities. In short, they are invariably upstanding and trustworthy pillars of our communities.

In today’s world, where proof of identity and money laundering checks are increasingly prevalent, the trusted local solicitor has an increasing role in legal checking and verification. This, after all, is why the Writer of the Signet remains a trusted person of proven integrity in Scottish society.

While local law firms still handle executry and family law, wills and private wealth, along with criminal work and conveyancing, they have lost taxation work to specialist financial advisers. Specialist employment law practitioners have increasingly taken over contract work and tribunal work. However, the employment tribunal system has been changing too and there are now hefty charges for both individuals and employers to consider, so resolving an employment dispute locally can potentially save tens of thousands of pounds.

Malcolm Fraser’s report says there is a need for action. I agree. Which is why I have been involved in the creating of United Employment Lawyers, a new Scottish network that gives local law firms in Scotland direct access to the highest level of employment law expertise without paying big ticket fees. So local lawyers in Scottish high streets can now handle inquiries from individuals, local trade unionists and from employers, about a range of issues from zero hours contracts through to employment tribunals. This puts employment law firmly back in the high streets, where it all started.

Local law firms are the stalwart of countless local communities across Scotland. I hope that Malcolm Fraser’s oversight is simply a temporary one and I look forward to seeing the local lawyer’s perspective represented on their advisory panel.

• Malcolm Mackay is an employment lawyer and founder and chairman of United Employment Lawyers

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