This article responds to recent developments including the proclamation published in the London Times that alternative business structures bring a perfect storm and threatens destruction to the existing high Street legal profession and a personal blog by the vice president of our own Law Society acknowledging that the core business of Scottish high street solicitors stands to be decimated and the reported moves by Irwin Mitchell towards Stock Exchange listing in a move to raise a £50 million war chest. It reflects also much of what was said against the promotion of alternative business structures while that topic was debated during the past two years.
A significant factor in the main changes which have been made to the legal profession during the past couple of decades is the fact that these changes have been made from outwith and often against the will of the profession itself. The scale fee was abolished because competition was seen to be more important than fairness and the prohibition of advertising was outlawed because business promotion was seen to be more important than professional substance. The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission was set up in the face of the Law Society having met and exceeded all of the government’s targets in relation to complaints handling and the profession is now, by law, regulated by a committee in which both the majority and the chairman may not be solicitors. The question now arises as to whether the legal profession sees its self as an essentially independent part of the constitutional element of the judiciary and separate therefore from the legislative and executive functions respectively, or simply as another commodity supplier, to succeed or fail according to how well its members can operate computers, make up punchy catchphrases and attract investors.
The Scottish Law Agents Society seems always to have adopted the former analysis and succeeding generations of members have endeavoured to provide the profession with a collegiate basis for that interpretation and, in 1949, achieved what appeared to be the Holy Grail of constitutional, collegiate identity in the formation of the Law Society of Scotland. Now, however, in the light of the changes referred to above, among many others, that former challenge appears to have been presented afresh to the profession and this may be the time and place for the determination as to how this challenge will be met.
First of all, it has to be acknowledged that the Scottish Law Agents Society , as it stands today with a membership extending to barely 10% of the profession, does not have the resources or profile to take any significant measures on behalf of the profession.
The first step therefore may be to establish whether there is a will in the High Street profession to address the issue on a collegiate basis subject to the overarching principles of professional independence and the public interest. This might be achieved by the extension of SLAS membership
throughout the practising profession and all practising solicitors who are not already members of this Society are invited to take out membership immediately. The existing membership might take this message to their colleagues, both in their own firms and beyond.
In the second place, we might consider what measures would be required in order to provide the 21st century consumer with the service that he has come to expect. It would require expert guidance to make an exhaustive or even useful list but, for example, solicitors might sign up to a standard of provision which includes:-
- Saturday and weekday evening availability of service , and
- Unlimited range of service provision (by virtue of effectively maintained and `updated registers of suitable practitioners and their specialities),
- A consumer friendly banner headline such as "Scottish Law Agents Society" (unlikely, perhaps) or Scottishsolicitors.com.
- Cutting edge electronic technology as a minimum standard in every office
- An easily understood and universally applied method of charging
- A recorded and possibly partly funded system of ex gratia service provision (Solicitors already provide a significant amount of ex gratia service)
- A widely available and uniform code of practice for public dissemination
- A free and speedy complaints referral service (which might render SLCC redundant)
- A central reception for clients’ anonymised comments on service provision
- The provision of standard .guides to assist public understanding of legal services
- A recognisable and distinctive signage and, like some of the major banks, a dress code for support personnel
Methods of merger might be examined whereby practices maintain their separate legal identities but concede at least a degree of autonomy in order to increase access to modern technology and to present a recognisable public persona.
Central services might include IT maintenance, institutional, informative advertising and case management provision.
Competition between solicitors has to be maintained and even fostered but that competition may be restricted so far as possible to the provision of legal services and not to the provision of ancillary services such as communications systems, IT facilities, estate agency provision and the like.
This would appear to be what, very roughly, qualitysolicitors.com have previously sought to provide in England and Wales and now, along with others, seek to provide in Scotland.
If the profession has a will for a project like this to move forward then each solicitor who is interested is requested to register that interest on the Society's website at www.slas.co.uk and confirm a willingness, not yet a commitment, if matters are to go forward, to contribute a payment of, say, £100 per principal solicitor and £50 per employed solicitor, towards a fund for the purposes of engaging specialists to take forward such a project. The value of individual registrations of interest would be greatly enhanced by additional suggestions and comment whether positive or negative.