Q: How confident are you that professional standards will be maintained when lawyers are representing clients via alternative business structures?
A: Working with alternative business structures (ABS) is an experiment. It hasn?t happened before in this country and it?s happened rather differently elsewhere. The Solicitors? Regulation Authority (SRA) has done a number of things which should help with the quality of representation. Firstly, the standards and regulation for ABS are just the same as for traditional firms. Secondly, the COLP (compliance officers for legal practice) and COFA (compliance officers for finance and administration) system has created an internal regulation, which will offer protection to lawyers working in non-lawyer owned firms because the COLP and the COFA have to refer breaches to the SRA. The new regulatory principles make it extremely clear that the solicitor?s duty remains to the client; and also, there?s a new duty: to deal properly with your regulator.
But, of course, it depends how it works in practice. There are other areas in which employed solicitors seem to provide a good service: in-house lawyers, domestically, have exactly the same rights and privileges as lawyers in private practice and we don?t hear about in-house lawyers behaving in dishonest ways ? or at least no more than any other sort of lawyer.
And the independence of private practice is held up as the gold standard; but let?s suppose you?re a small firm and you have one big client. How independent are you really? Or let?s suppose you?re a very junior lawyer in a very big firm. Are you going to defy your senior partners? I think there?s no reason for solicitors in ABS with external owners to be any less independent in their advice to clients than solicitors in private practice.
But what actually happens will have to be very closely monitored.
Q: Do you think that the quality assurance scheme for advocates (QASA) will ultimately work in favour of the Bar, rather than solicitor-advocates?
A: No, I don?t. I?m sure the Bar would very much like it to be so but all our efforts have been put into making sure that it does not happen. It seemed to us enormously important that any scheme should be the same for solicitors and barristers. We were not prepared to have anything that suggested a two-tier system.
We?re not happy with aspects of QASA and we?ve made that very plain. In particular, we are concerned about the prospective loss of the right of every solicitor to represent clients in the magistrates? courts and about judicial assessments. When you?re in court, you should be representing your client?s interest, not trying to get brownie points from the judge.
We also think it?s over burdensome,overly bureaucratic and may not work.
There?s no start date agreed. When it does start, we?ll be monitoring it very closely, doing our utmost to make sure that it?s fair to our members.
Q: How do you see the relationship between the two branches of the profession?
A: I don?t see there is anything at all to be gained by in-fighting. The profession generally plays a really important role in society and we?ll be more effective if we can work together rather than against each other. And I certainly have perfectly good relationships with members of the Bar Council, as do my colleagues.
But, at a dinner the other day, a senior barrister said, "The trouble with solicitors having non-trial rights of audience in the Crown Court is that it will encourage them to persuade their clients to plead guilty?. When people suggest that we are bent, it?s very difficult to go on smiling.
Except that I think that these are the shouts of frightened people. Solicitors are doing very well in criminal advocacy. It?s understandable that they will be taking a hack at us but it?s not something that we should accept.
Q: Some of our members, with redundancies in their firms as a result of effective legal aid reductions over several years, feel that they are unlikely to survive best value tendering (BVT),when it finally arrives. What do you have to say to those members?
A: The last BVT scheme collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and I can hardly see that things are going to be any better this time round. There are all sorts of businesses where BVT might have a place but I don?t think criminal defence is one of them. We?ll have to see what they come up with but we?ll be working very hard to protect our members.
One of my presidential theme sis "a diverse profession for a diverse society?. The network of small firms across the country is enormously important ? not just important to their clients but I think they?re important for the rule of law, for society. One of the tasks of the Law Society is to help those small firms survive.
The LSC understandably would rather deal with fewer larger firms ? because it?s cheaper for them and they?ve got their own costs to cut. There?s no reason at all why they can?t deal with a smaller number of contracts while we still maintain a very diverse provider base. This would not necessarily be through consortia but through structures that will enable that to take place. I?m not saying that I recommend that; but, if push comes to shove, we will be working to try and ensure that our members will survive.
The Law Society can help small firms survive in various different ways, such as helping them to cut their overheads, to market their services and deal with the burden of regulation which is something that we spend a lot of time discussing with the Solicitors? Regulation Authority.
Q: What do you have to say to the young graduates who have got their law degrees and done their legal practice courses and then, having built up a huge debt, cannot move forward with their careers?
A: We?ve got two objectives: firstly, we must make sure that the people who have the potential to make really excellent lawyers aren?t put off. Secondly, we must make sure universities give realistic information to their students.
I think the education and training review may propose a more formal and consistent kind of non- graduate entry. Somethingwhich enables people to dowork-based learning, as an alternative to goingto university and theLPC, may be one way of meeting thisparticular issue.
Q: Do you have any plans to make an assault on the media?s image of fat-cat lawyers?
A: I think it?s an important part of this job to try and explain what lawyers do. The reputation of the legal profession amongst its clients is very high; but I don?t think we?re going to change the mind of the Daily Mail.
But some of the stuff we do is behind the scenes because we think we?ll be more effective that way. What?s important is to make sure that the Ministry of Justice sees criminal defence lawyers as an integral part of the criminal justice system, along with prosecutors, judges and police.
Q: What can be achieved by the president of the Law Society?
A: Presidents only have the power to set the agenda for council meetings. That?s a pretty limited power. Presidents move forward the will of council. We?re going to have a debate at the next council meeting about our relationship with the SRA. There are big changes coming in regulation over the next few years. What?s going to be our approach?
Promoting the rule of law is something which the profession wants us to do and enhances our reputation. Mike Todd, the chairman of the Bar and I wrote a joint letter ? but it was a Law Society initiative ? to the government about the secret courts bill, saying that the provisions for secret courts were the sort of behaviour that oppressive regimes were inclined to engage in. The letter got a lot of publicity and was referred to in the Lords? debate, when the government was heavily defeated.
Q: How will your experience as a criminal law lawyer affect your work as president of the Law Society?
A: My experience as a criminal lawyer is pretty old. I stopped doing criminal defence work 25 years ago. The reason I stopped doing it is that, if you?re doing criminal defence work as a solicitor, it?s pretty much full time and I had a baby.
So I started doing mental health work which is far more manageable on a part-time basis ? you don?t get the middle of the night phone call ? but I?m very glad I did criminal defence work. I have huge admiration for anybody who is doing the coal-face work in criminal law.
Q: You describe your own firm, Scott-Moncrieff & Associates, as a "virtual office?. Could you explain how it works?
A: We?ve got a tiny office in Kentish Town, which is the heart of the organisation. We?ve got between 50 and 60 fee-earners, mainly solicitors, all self- employed and either working from home or working from their own offices. They are all members of the firm and they have to comply with our structures. Because we can cut the overheads to the absolute bone, they keep 70% of what they bring in.
Q: Do you have time for a personal life at the moment?
A: My grown-up sons are living in my flat, as they can?t afford to move out. The place is probably like a student flat by now, as I?m using the accommodation that goes with this job in Carey Street. I have meetings at eight in the morning and dinners that goon till eleven and so it?s so much easier to go there. I think it?s an advantage being president if you?re single, as I am, because it?s much more than full time, it?s 14 or 16 hours a day so I don?t feel guilty about abandoning a partner.
Q: What are you going to do when your presidency finishes?
A: I?ve got a practice to run. And I?d like to develop some of the rule of law and pro bono stuff that I?ve got very involved in while I?ve been an office holder. But a long holiday first!