2007 is going to be an important year for solicitors and for the Law Society. The Legal Services Bill, the most significant piece of legislation for the legal professions for decades, will complete its passage through Parliament and the new solicitors’ Code of Conduct will come into force during the final months of my term as president.
At the same time the Government will be implementing its planned changes to the legal aid system, many firms will be working out what alternative business structures (ABSs) might do for them and UK-based international firms will continue to expand into new and important global markets.
But despite the overall profession being competitive and innovative, there are significant areas of difficulty. Some of the changes planed for 2007 will ease those difficulties and others will present further challenges – particularly for small firms and those that hold the smaller legal aid contracts.
That may not apply to you, but I strongly believe that we all need to understand what’s happening to the profession that we worked so hard to join. The support of some of our biggest commercial firms for the Law Society’s ‘What Price Justice?’ campaign on the future of legal aid proves that I am not alone in this belief.
The bill will provide all of us with new opportunities that will challenge us to find new ways to deliver legal services, whatever our area of practice and whatever kind or size of firm we work in. Outside investment in, or even ownership of, firms is a huge step that offers possibilities for us all, but one that we each need to consider very carefully.
My priority is to ensure that the regulatory framework the bill sets in place, and that the future oversight and frontline regulators develop, puts in place the same consumer protections as those that apply to conventional legal practice and avoids cherry-picking of the more lucrative work, leaving advice deserts. The bill gives us most of the tools we need.
Many smaller firms see the advent of outside ownership and ABSs as a threat. We don’t know what the impact on small practices will be, but we are already seeing existing firms anticipating change by commoditising domestic conveyancing, remortgage and personal injury work using software and paralegals.
New possibilities mean that we have to have open minds about how solicitors might be employed in the future and what structures the organisations they work in might have. What will be essentially important throughout the coming period of change is that we maintain real access to justice and provide competitively priced legal services for all in our society while maintaining our global reputation for excellence.
Maintaining standards is, of course, the point of the new Code of Conduct, which has been a long time in gestation. The date of its coming into force will be announced at the end of January. Now that regulation of solicitors is the responsibility of the Law Society’s independent regulation board (to be known as the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority from January), the society’s job is to help our members prepare for the new regime and to monitor how it is working.
We will be publicising our programme of support soon, but in terms of monitoring we will need your input. We want solicitors to let us know of any difficulties the new regime throws up in practice so that we can work with the regulator to get running repairs made to the code to the benefit of solicitors and their clients.
International market opening will continue to be high on the agenda for the Law Society in 2007, targeting new markets.
After several years of negotiations we have persuaded the Korean authorities to start the legislative process to liberalise the country’s legal services market. The publication of the draft bill on foreign legal consultants paves the way for solicitors’ firms to open offices in Korea and to offer fly-in, fly-out services on non-Korean law. The Law Society will be working to ensure that the bill passes unscathed through the Korean National Assembly, that the EU Free Trade Agreement covers legal services and that any implementing regulations are proportionate.
In the coming year we will continue to forge opportunities for UK law firms in emerging markets to ensure that our firms do not lose ground to their international rivals. China, Russia, India and Brazil offer rich opportunities for UK law firms and they are firmly in our sights for liberalisation.