Practice and Procedure

Law Society president: split in profession to end

PUBLISHED January 26, 2012

The president of the Law Society expects the 180-year-old division between solicitors and barristers to wither away as a result of the reforms set in motion by the Legal Services Act.
It is ?inevitable? the professions will ?need to revisit the question whether [they] should continue to be separately trained, represented and regulated,? John Wotton (pictured) said. ?I envisage the time coming when the distinction will be more a decorative than a functional aspect of our legal constitution,? he added. 
Wotton was addressing Sa?d Business School in Oxford in a speech entitled Fission or Fusion, which considered how the relationship between solicitors and other legal services providers is likely to change. He also called into question the new ?ProcureCo? vehicle, through which the bar wants chambers to establish separate business units to help them compete with solicitors. 
Bar chair Michael Todd QC is right to recognise the ?vulnerability? of the bar as a referral profession and respond by identifying ways of achieving more direct access, Wotton conceded. But the Chancery Lane president suggested the ProcureCo structure might ?stretch the chambers model of practice to breaking point?. 
?Does it make sense to establish additional structures such as ProcureCo to enter into legal aid contracts, procuring advocacy from members of chambers and litigation from solicitors, when any mixed solicitor/barrister, SRA-regulated practice can provide an integrated service?? he asked.
Wotton believes that in the ?short- to medium-term? more barristers will practise in SRA-regulated entities, while more advocacy will be undertaken by the barristers and solicitor-advocates of the firm conducting the litigation.
He foresees more barristers undertaking their pupillages in such practices and believes joining such a practice as a salaried employee could be more attractive to an aspiring advocate than a chambers pupillage. A common postgraduate training course could prepare an aspiring lawyer for either calling, he suggested.
On the structure of regulation, Wotton?s ?tentative conclusion? is that the present model of maintaining a number of regulators based on professional title should remain. He did moot the possibility of a merger between the SRA and Bar Standards Board, but stressed that the costs are likely to outweigh the benefits ?unless mixed practices of barristers and solicitors were so prevalent that separate regulation could no longer be justified?. 
Addressing the introduction of alternative business structures, Wotton stressed that ABSs have ?no magic bullet? and will not inevitably out-compete small firms. Predatory pricing is not feasible in legal markets, he said, while small businesses ?can offer consumer services at lower cost and respond faster to changes in the market?.
Wotton warned nevertheless that ABSs will not confine their activities to consumer legal services. Consumer litigation is also likely to be attractive, he suggested.