Tuesday, May 27, 2008

MacAskill praises Law Society market rigging, monopoly & complaints fixing

While many talk of the vote to open the legal services market, most missed the fact that free market reform resistors such as the Justice Secretary will sit back and take around three years to actually bring forward legislation to implement those so sought after access to justice reforms.

Indeed, Mr MacAskill spent last week attending a party rally conference hosted by the Law Society where he could do nothing but praise the profession.

If you can stomach reading about the speech here it is as the Scotsman reports :

MacAskill praises forward thinking

By Jennifer Veitch

Embracing new business structures is just the first step, the next could be 24-hour access and a legal Facebook, reports Jennifer Veitch

AFTER all the "will they, won't they" angst about alternative business structures (ABS), the Law Society's annual conference kicked off on an uncharacteristically positive note on Friday.

Richard Henderson, the society's president, seemed in an almost chipper mood as he began proceedings by hailing the "really quite historic decision" taken at the AGM the previous day.

He had considerable reason to be cheerful. The vote to accept the society's policy paper on ABS had been passed by an overwhelming majority – around nine to one in favour.

And so – if you set aside the significant minority who still worry that so-called "Tesco law" will damage access to justice and put small firms at risk – for once at least, it seems that the society was leading the charge on change.

In his opening speech to conference, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill was effusive in his praise for the profession. The minister expressed his gratitude, stating that he was "hugely encouraged" by the society's forward-looking response, and promising to bring forward detailed legislative proposals on ABS as soon as parliamentary time allowed. He even stuck a cherry on top by announcing some extra money for legal aid.

"We have come further together than might have seemed possible only a few years ago," he added. "Both the Law Society and the Faculty have proved they can lead change when change is required."

Bearing in mind the rather fractious relationship that lawyers had with the previous administration, it seemed not only constructive, but almost cosy. Then again, having a consensus on a policy paper is one thing; taking forward changes that could transform the way the profession works is another.

At the conference, there were signs that the profession – currently grappling not only with ABS, but a consultation on standards, the transition to a new complaints handling system, the introduction of the regulation of paralegals and a review of legal education, as well as the biggest ever review of the Scottish civil courts system – is perhaps not as well-placed as it might be to modernise.

Professor Richard Susskind's speech highlighted the need that he perceived for lawyers to become more client-focused, with more efficient services. This would involve "decomposing" legal work, he said, with lawyers only performing those tasks that really needed their skills and talents.

He added that, in the future, lawyers would still be needed when clients need "deep expertise", but he predicted that roles would evolve into specialist niches such as trusted advisers, legal knowledge engineers, legal project managers and legal risk managers.

Where Susskind's vision of the future started to wake up the audience however, was in his assessment of the impact of new – and existing – technology.

There were audible groans when he predicted that the market would soon demand 24-hour access to lawyers, and what might well have been a stunned silence when he said that in five years, "the equivalent of Facebook will be a fundamental way of communicating with clients." When Susskind asked the conference delegates if they had used Facebook, only one tentative hand could be seen rising through the gloom of the conference hall. "I am on there, if you want a friend," he quipped.

His predictions on the scale of technology growth were enough to boggle even the best legal brains. In 20 years, he said, the average PC will have the power of a human brain; in 50 years, the power equivalent to the brain power of whole of humanity. By then, he joked, "it might be time for lawyers to change their working practices".

While most of the middle-aged lawyers in the conference hall won't have much cause to worry about the state of the Scottish legal services market in 2058, Susskind had a serious point to make.

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