Lorna Jack, chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland, explains how her organisation has adapted through the pandemic to shape policy and support the nation’s legal sector.
As the professional membership body for Scottish solicitors we have an ambitious goal to lead legal excellence. But, when we’re fighting to survive a global pandemic, is excellence still achievable?
Like most sectors, the legal profession was hit hard by lockdown in March 2020. We moved immediately to focus on helping our members access the information they needed for their clients, employees and businesses, and to tackle the immediate challenges facing the profession.
I’m proud to say that we never lost sight of our strategic aims. In how we supported our members, how we transitioned to working from home, and how we continued to advocate for the rule of law, we maintained our commitment to leading legal excellence.
On 23 March, when the stay-at-home message was announced, hundreds of people were left anxious and uncertain about whether property sales that were due to conclude could go through. Our committee volunteers and staff worked closely with Registers of Scotland, our land registry, over a tense, and long, few days to find solutions to allow those sales to conclude in a way that preserved the interests of both sellers and buyers.
It was the first indication of the scale of issues faced by the legal profession. Long hours and creative thinking were the order of the day as we worked with other organisations in Scotland to address a raft of measures needed to address the new circumstances. Every change which might impact on our members and their clients had to be monitored, understood and shared.
Influencing public policy
Our policy team and committees worked around the clock responding to emergency legislation being brought forward in both the UK and Scottish Parliaments. The first Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill included a proposal to fundamentally change our justice system, by running judge-only trials for the most serious of criminal offences. There was only a matter of days in which to respond.
Our briefing to MSPs on the bill landed in their inboxes at 1am on Wednesday 1 April. Just eight hours later, as debate opened in Parliament, it was our words which were being quoted by politicians from across the Chamber in defence of jury trials. All of them recognising the thought and detailed consideration we had put into the briefing in such a short time.
That element of the bill was withdrawn so that other options could be explored. Ultimately it was replaced by the introduction of remote jury centres, something we suggested as part of our submission on alternative solutions.
Supporting our members
We were determined to do all that we could to help and support our members as they faced what was in many cases an economic as well as a social crisis.
In May 2020, as part of an unprecedented £2.2 million package of financial support we reduced both the practising certificate fee paid by all Scottish solicitors and the accounts fee paid by law firm partners by 20 per cent. We also waived the client protection fund contribution entirely, and waived Continuing Professional Development requirements for the year.
These were not easy decisions, and required strong leadership and tough choices. We had to cut deep into the Law Society’s reserves and put several projects on hold. But, it was the right decision in the circumstances to do what we could to minimise what solicitors had to pay out in difficult times.
The evolution of legal excellence
When the pandemic hit we were in the final stages of preparing our new five-year strategy. We shifted gear and developed a more focused interim two-year strategy instead to support the recovery of the profession and lead legal excellence into the future.
This has been a challenging year, but one in which I believe we have proved time and time again our commitment to rise to those challenges. We have learned a lot and, as much as I look forward to being able to meet members and colleagues in person once again, there are also some real benefits to the online working which was forced upon us and the pressure to do things differently. We want to retain as much of those benefits as possible, and together with members forge a new route to supporting the legal profession in Scotland post-pandemic.