Thriving legal sector vital to Scotland’s success

EMBRACING change is the only way, says Christine Mclintock

Picture: PA
Picture: PA

The only thing that’s certain is change – and change is certainly something the legal sector continues to see plenty of.

The challenges and opportunities of the digital era together with new entrants to the legal market, increased expectations from clients – not to mention legislative change – mean those within the legal profession have to adapt, innovate, take risks and grasp new opportunities.

First we have to recognise what has changed. There has been increased consolidation of the legal market – including the announcement that Simpson and Marwick is to merge with global law firm Clyde and Co on 1 October. The profession has more members than ever at 11,200 practising solicitors in Scotland. We have also seen a significant rise in the use of paralegals, legal executives and technicians, along with growth in legal out-sourcing centres, often staffed with non-solicitors, and new and innovative business models are being adopted by firms.

The legal sector contributes over £1 billion every year to the Scottish economy and is responsible for over 20,000 high-quality jobs. And it’s not just as an economic generator in its own right, but a profession that is critical to Scotland’s other key and growing sectors – financial services, oil and gas, renewable energy, bioscience.

What remains constant, however, is that solicitors provide advice and assistance to individuals to guide them through some of the most important events in their lives. Access to quality legal advice and representation for everyone, regardless of financial means, helps tackle inequality, encourages early resolution of problems, and protects fundamental rights.

So how should the Law Society respond to fast-paced change and ensure that our profession continues to thrive and can continue to meet the needs of their clients?

In considering this, we can look at change elsewhere. It helps to look to over the border at the experience of England and Wales (or further afield to New South Wales in Australia) where there are now more than 400 alternative business structures (ABS) in place. Of those, 85 per cent are businesses with 1-9 partners, 11 per cent have 10-49 partners, 1.8 per cent have 50-99 partners and 1.4 per cent have 100-plus partners. The vast majority were formerly traditional law firms. A few were formerly in-house teams and not-for-profit organisations providing pro bono services and some were new entrants.

Among them there is a strong presence in the business-to-consumer (B2C) market – wills and trusts, personal injury, litigation, employment law, tax planning and family law. ABS entities now account for one-third of the personal injury market and a significant number providing mental health, non-litigation consumer and social welfare services.

Even without ABS regulation up and running in Scotland, we cannot ignore what is happening. New forms of legal services businesses are arriving, although they will be operating outwith the reserved areas. This means they won’t be regulated by the Society – or any other regulator.

Nor can we ignore technology, we must consider how technology will change client expectations and demands – and look at how it will shape the legal market in the future.

These are some of the issues which the Society took into account in determining our new five-year strategy ‘Leading Legal Excellence’, published last month. We recognise that it is not enough for members to be competent and compliant with baseline standards. Our focus has to be on excellence – in legal education, client service from members and member service from the Society. Our mission is to be a world-class professional body.

Leading Legal Excellence is the theme of the Society’s Law in Scotland conference on 2 October.

Speaker Lord Hodge will speak about excellence in the Supreme Court, and Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell, will look at Scotland’s contribution to the law abroad. Other speakers include technology entrepreneur Karl Chapman and Rasmus Ankersen, who will discuss the ‘gold mine’ effect. There will also be sessions on administrative law, the land registration act, Brexit and the gender pay gap.

I hope to see you there.

• Christine McLintock is president of the Law Society of Scotland