A president on parallel lines

Having to fight off a bid by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to prise fee income information out of all Scottish law firms was a rather rude and sudden introduction to the presidency of the Law Society of Scotland.

But Grant McCulloch, solicitor-advocate and partner in the Edinburgh office of Drummond Miller WS, is used to fighting battles for the underdog as a specialist in medical negligence – he was involved in the Martin v Chapman case, which led to the highest personal injuries damages award in Scotland.

For the moment, the battle with the commission is in a wait and see interval. The questionnaires, which, after a hearing in the Court of Session last month, were amended and sent only to solicitors involved directly in estate agency or conveyancing work. Those questionnaires were to be returned last month and the commission has until the end of the year to complete its investigation.

McCulloch comments that the Law Society is “disappointed that the commission did not appear to realise how difficult it is for many firms of solicitors to extract the figures”.

“In many areas of business and particular, in the case of domestic conveyancing, there is a tendency for solicitors to be asked to quote a fee for selling, and buying as well as advise on financing. The commission seemed to anticipate that the fees quoted could be broken down into the individual elements, which is not the case.”

He adds that it is cheaper and more efficient for clients to go to a solicitor who operates a one-stop estate agency and conveyancing service rather than having to pay two advisers.

In the meantime, while the internal and external workings of the Law Society south of the border are getting press coverage, another issue being addressed by the society north of the border is that the Government “seems to wish a complete review of the criminal justice system. Whether it will consult with the Law Society remains to be seen.”

McCulloch adds: “The indications from the policy statements issued by the Secretary of State for Scotland appear to indicate that he has a certain view, and consultation has not hitherto been forthcoming.” He cites the recent case where although an independent committee was set up to consider miscarriages of justice, and one of its recommendations was to set up an independent review body for investigating alleged wrongful convictions, the proposal was rejected by the current Secretary of State.

With only a year in office as president, McCulloch says that as with lawyers south of the border, falling fee incomes are a concern among all lawyers. He believes possible solutions are greater efficiency and computerisation, which, although costly, should bring benefits.

As to the question of whether multidisciplinary practices in Scotland will feature prominently in the future, McCulloch says the rules are simple – MDPs are outlawed in Scotland. “The view remains, generally, that they are not in the interests of the public. It is in the public interest that they have absolute confidence in solicitors, and the question of confidentiality does not apply in the same way to as in other disciplines. Generally, with an MDP, it is not enough to say that there are Chinese walls between the disciplines – that does not go far enough.”

Although issues affecting lawyers north and south of the border tend to be the same, McCulloch adds: “With changes as a result of the criminal justice review and the 'Lord Woolf in a kilt' Lord Cullen's civil justice review, there will be changes of the rules in some way. But there is inevitably a fear there may be unnecessary interference in what has been a system that has worked well for the public and the profession. There is no public clamour for a change or for a new provider of legal services.”

As to what he wants to achieve and what can be achieved during his presidency, he would like to see the profession in “a stronger and healthier position both in terms of its stature within the community and in terms of its finances”. He would also like to reclaim respect for the profession from the public: “The society has a dual responsibility, and a successful and respected solicitors profession will always be to the benefit of the clients.”

Looking south at the presidential elections, McCulloch says: “We watch the events in the English Law Society with interest, and sometimes concern, admiration and amusement. No doubt the same happens in reverse. I wish the new president, whoever that is, the best of luck doing the same job down there as we do up here, dealing with the same issues.” Albeit in different ways.