Saturday, April 26, 2008

Advocates bolt from the stables to claim better service as clients cite worst legal service in living memory

Never too late for a quick advertisement to promote legal services in Scotland these days ... oh you need a lawyer for that fall in the supermarket so you better get one quickly .. but despite recent 'improvements' in legal services offerings - as claimed by the legal profession itself, clients are coming to terms with the worst level of legal services in Scotland ever ...

A solicitor who recently contacted us at SLR with a file on how poorly an advocate represented his client claimed the Faculty's spin on new services and competence from Scotland's advocates masks the dire performance many have given clients in Court proceedings ...

Come to Scotland and don't advance your legal business ? Surely not a good advertisement for justice ...

The Scotsman reports :

New model army of advocates is making advances


THE so-called 'devolution' of stables was the biggest shake-up at the Faculty of Advocates for a generation. But a year on, are these new chambers-style groups offering clients a better service – and will they help advocates compete with the oncoming march of the alternative business structure?

Axiom Advocates, one of the first and most high profile stables to 'devolve' from Faculty Services Limited, reports that its new approach, focusing on specialist areas of the law and selecting members on merit, has been a success so far.

David Johnston QC – one of 10 'silks' who have enabled Axiom to boast such heavyweight expertise in commercial and public law – says the group has been so busy it has had to turn some cases away.

He adds that it is too early to say whether the new model is more efficient or cost-effective, but he argues that the ability to specialise and to choose members has obvious advantages for clients.

"If you look back a year, we had all these stables, as some of them are still calling themselves, with members there as a matter of chance," he says. "In the old days, you routinely followed your devil master into the stable he or she was in. That ceased to be practical, and the stables didn't have any focus on particular subject areas.

"It's true that not all the stables specialise, and not all select their members in the way we do. But those are the two things that have made a real difference."

Johnston says the new model has allowed advocates to work more closely, for example by exchanging information on developments in the law and working together to deliver the Third Thursday series of monthly lectures. "The most obvious thing we had done is to set up these monthly events where we provide training for ourselves and others," he says. "On a more internal level, we do have practice groups with members who try to keep up to date in particular areas. These things would have been possible in the past, but never happened."

The faculty shake-up has enabled advocates to work together as closely as possible while remaining within the rules that prevent members from entering into partnership, he adds.

"I do see our function as being more as members of a team," he says. "In the old days, the notion was that the Bar was a bunch of individuals competing against each other.

"Of course, that has not disappeared. But what we have been trying to do is create more of a team mentality, and some of our members do work together on cases for particular clients."

Axiom has also taken on board feedback from clients about giving clearer information about levels of service and fees, he adds, and members are well aware of the competition from other stables, solicitor advocates and even the English Bar.

"We set off at the outset asking, 'how can we improve the quality of service?' We homed in on the fact that often clients would like much more information," he says. "Routinely, our clients enter into fee arrangements so there are no unpleasant surprises.

"We need to constantly be aware that it is a very competitive marketplace, and we need to make sure that the services we offer are excellent."

While Johnston says Axiom has had a busy first year, there seems little room for complacency as an already competitive marketplace looks set to become even more challenging.

A few days ago, the Law Society confirmed it would support the introduction of alternative business structures – subject to the approval of members at its AGM next month, and provided there is appropriate regulation.

However, Johnston is not keen to see the faculty relax its rules on partnership at the Bar, and he wants advocates to remain independent practitioners.

"It does seem to me that there will always be room for an independent referral bar – clearly the moment we end up with partnership of advocates we are faced with conflicts of interest. So it seems to me pretty clear, in a small jurisdiction like this, that it would lead to more restriction on access to legal representation if we were split into a few partnerships.

"We recognise that there are these pressures – the only way that we can reasonably expect people to refer is because we have shown we have the experience to do that business."

There are other advantages to working independently, he adds, as the fact that Axiom's members are not partners means that opposing parties are still free to instruct counsel from the same group of advocates.

"We very often appear against one another – it's just one of those aspects of life at the Bar," he says. "I don't think it has become any more difficult for us."

The advocates' business model also means they are better suited than solicitors to allow counsel to act for and against the same party in different cases, he says.

"In a way, that is one of the curiosities of the bar. Unlike solicitors, who may have a working relationship with a client, it's recognised that we may sometimes act for one client and then another."

But, in the light of increased competition from solicitor advocates and the very real prospect of alternative business structures, Johnston says advocates should be shouting louder about the benefits of using their services. And he sees direct access as their best chance of countering the competition.

"The faculty rules on direct access were relaxed last year and it might be fair to say that there is scope to try to develop that," he says.

"Unless one goes out and explains to the professionals involved that they are able to instruct us, then it has probably passed them by. We need to make it clear that we are there to provide a service and that they can do that without necessarily involving a solicitor. There is a huge potential in the direct access market."

And Johnston adds that increasing specialisation will be needed if advocates are to remain competitive.

"Solicitors are not generalists to any extent, so it does not seem to make much sense to be able to claim to do everything either," he says. "We need not just an understanding of legal reasoning, but there is a lot of law as well.

"I think that's what makes us different from what went before. That's why we are able to make the claims for quality that we do make, and that is also what equips us to compete in a competitive environment."

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