The current President of the Law Society of Scotland, Graham Matthews, shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing the professions during his term.
I took office as President of the Law Society of Scotland on 26 May this year and while I’d love to have been the first Law Society President ever to say “actually, I think I’ll have a pretty easy year”, this looked unlikely from the very beginning and has so far proven to be quite the opposite.
Such is the scale of challenges (and opportunities) facing the Society and our members, whether they are working on the high street, in-house, or in city firms across Scotland and further afield. The profession has changed enormously since I started out in practice over three decades ago, but solicitors’ willingness and ability to adapt to a changing environment remains constant.
Of course, our role is to support our members in the face of these changes and in some cases, to play an integral part in determining what they should be. We will play a full part in the Scottish Government’s review of legal services regulation, launched in April this year, and continue to press for new legislation which will allow the legal sector to develop, help us to become more agile as a regulator and make sure there are robust protections for members of the public using solicitors’ services.
The main law governing the profession, the Solicitors (Scotland) Act, is now more than 35 years old and there has been huge change in the legal sector in recent decades. New legislation will give us the means to regulate for the profession as it is today, in the 21st century.
Ensuring access to justice is also a key priority. Another review in which we expect to play an influencing role, is the ongoing independent review of legal aid, which aims to identify a flexible and progressive system that is sustainable and cost effective. I feel very strongly that everyone, regardless of background or financial situation, should be able to access legal advice and support when and where they need it. For that to happen, legal aid solicitors need to be fairly remunerated for the important work that they do on behalf of their clients, some of whom are the most vulnerable in society.
In terms of what’s on the horizon, Brexit remains one of our principal concerns, with some of our bigger firms already feeling the impact of clients’ becoming more wary about investing in such an uncertain climate. It is of course also difficult for solicitors to advise their clients when so much of the detail remains unknown. As the negotiations move forward, it will be vital to ensure stability in the law and maintain, as far as possible, close collaboration in freedom, security and justice measures. We want to see continued professional recognition and continued rights of audience in the EU for our members and believe there also needs to be an agreed path for recognising and enforcing citizens’ rights, including the rights of parties with pending cases before the Court of Justice of the EU.
Solicitor education is another focus for my time in office and I am hugely proud to continue the good work of my predecessors in promoting our new education trust the Lawscot Foundation, which was launched last year. The Foundation will offer financial support and, importantly, mentoring with experienced solicitors to students from less advantaged backgrounds who have been accepted to study Scots law at university.
I am delighted that we are now in the position of being able to help our first group of young people. They have faced difficult challenges at a young age – from being in care or being a carer themselves, to being made homeless. Yet despite, or perhaps because of this, they are hugely driven – they have worked hard and received offers to study law at university from this autumn. I am positive that the legal profession will be all the richer for having such an inspiring group of people as part of it in the future.
Graham Matthews is the current President of the Law Society of Scotland. He qualified as a solicitor in 1979. After an apprenticeship in Musselburgh, Graham returned to his native Aberdeenshire in January 1981 to take up an assistant post in Inverurie and never left, having now occupied the same office and same desk for 35 years.
He joined the Law Society’s Council in 2005 and has sat on and convened many committees and working parties before being elected Vice President for 2016/2017 in December. He is also vice convener of Society’s Guarantee Fund Sub-Committee.
Graham is enthusiastic about the legal profession and particularly high street practice and all it entails, including legal aid, access to justice and education.