With one of the largest Scottish firms becoming a de facto multidisciplinary (MDP) practice by joining Arthur Andersen's global network, and legal aid lawyers vociferous about the proposed public defenders pilot scheme, the new president of the Law Society of Scotland has hit the ground running.
Unusually for a law society president, John Elliot, of Edinburgh firm Lindsays WS, is based at the society's offices in Drumsheugh Gardens. The main reason for this is that “this job is too important not to do it to the best of one's abilities,” he explains. “As one of the nearest council members, it is possible to visit Lindsays' office between 8am and 9.30am every day and then come to the society's offices.”
Elliot has already set out a number of well-defined objectives, including the matter of multidisciplinary practices. With the Dundas & Wilson/Andersens MDP established, Elliot accepts there is pressure to come to a view about this new breed of practice. “The effect of MDPs could be more profound on smaller firms where the problems of linking with other professions can be more acute,” he says. “Certain fundamental tenets must be maintained such as independence, confidential client relations, as well as proper public protections. Lawyers are having to think about how and with whom they will be practising towards the next century and beyond.”
A working party has been considering MDPs and it is envisaged that concrete proposals will be made by the end of the year. Elliot says that “with what is essentially a revolution in thought and culture for lawyers, what is in the best interests of the clients has to be considered as well as what will serve lawyers”.
Conscious of comments querying the relevance of the respective law societies in the UK, Elliot is taking steps to ensure there is greater communication between the society and its members. Although Scotland has more representatives per solicitor on the council than elsewhere in the UK, that representation must be effective: “The council and the profession must be forced closer together – not just by one side going further than the other, but by both meeting in the middle [to address and resolve issues].”
His mission in this regard entails talking to solicitors face to face, with a series of meetings planned around the country to hear the views of partners, deans of faculties and others. He will be paying particular attention to the thoughts of trainees, whom he considers a neglected part of the profession.
In another bid to bridge the perceived gaps between the society and the profession, the society's annual conference in April will be held in Glasgow rather than the traditional venue of Gleneagles, addressing the problem of the society being seen as Edinburgh-centric.
With a proposed Scottish Parliament being based in Edinburgh, attention will inevitably be focused there. Elliot does not comment on the Government's proposals on devolution or the tax-varying powers, but says the society will accept the result and have a role to play in how disputes between a Scottish Parliament and Westminster will be resolved, as well as in deciding how European legislation will be implemented in Scotland. “What is needed is an independent body and the society is in that position,” says Elliot.
The bigger picture includes marketing the profession with the Dial-a-Law scheme similar to those in Canada and
Australia and addressing accusations from legal aid practitioners that the society has failed to take a lead in opposing proposals to trim the legal aid budget in Scotland.
Despite the more pressing issues, Elliot has also set up a strategy committee, which will look five years ahead and deal with using the manpower of the council more effectively.
One of Elliot's pet projects is to launch a helpline to support solicitors suffering from stress. This already exists to a limited extent, but will be available on a wider scale at the beginning of next year. It is one project that Elliot anticipates will definitely be in place when his year of office is over.
Elliot may have hit the ground running, but he is showing no signs of exhaustion yet.