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Severn Crossing: a trip few solicitors wanted to make

That was the third August through which Legal Futures has reported, and each time it has proven a surprisingly busy month. The last four and a half weeks have left us with plenty to ponder.

The daily ABS

First up we are finally starting to see alternative business structures (ABSs) approved on a regular basis; this is not great surprise now that we are eight months into the process, but there has been a bit of disappointment among some (particularly journalists) that few have been groundbreaking.

The ‘biggies’ were the ones we knew about, such as Parabis and Irwin Mitchell, although those of Crabtree Law and TPP Law were certainly of note. The former is the first non-legal business to use the ABS structure to enter the legal market (and indeed convert its in-house lawyer from a cost to a profit centre), while the latter is a small firm openly looking for external capital to help it grow.

But to me it is also worthy of note that many of the supposedly less interesting ABSs are those involving firms with non-lawyer partners. Think how that prospect was regarded 10, even five, years ago – now the fact that there are non-lawyer owners of law firms is regarded as barely worth mentioning. Major change can creep up on you.

However, word is that there are some very significant ABSs still going through the system. England and Wales is becoming the world’s legal laboratory – also this month we have seen a Canadian online legal document company target these shores and one of the country’s best-known investors backing a legal subscription service, while the early days of Stobart Barristers are looking promising.

Active competence

I have written before about how the Legal Education and Training Review is arguably of even greater significance than the introduction of ABSs, so it is disappointing to learn that it received just 46 responses to its first discussion paper.

The second and final discussion paper was published last week – it’s not the easiest 50 pages you will ever read, but then it is dealing with issues that are both high level and difficult, placing the training system in a world of new legal jobs and a regulatory regime moving towards a focus on outcomes and activity, rather than inputs and titles. Thus the general thrust of the paper is towards more active tests of competence based on outcomes, as well as common standards across the various branches of the legal profession.

The paper also puts paralegals into the spotlight, seeking support for a common approach to standards, and raises the possibility of multiple exit points along the route towards qualification.

It deserves more attention from the profession than the first paper received, but one cannot help but wonder how this will play out in the long term. The review’s report, due at the end of the year, will then be for the commissioning regulators – the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards – to take on. But not only will their responses need to be co-ordinated, so will that of the rest of the market.

It makes me wonder whether the Legal Services Board should have had the courage of its convictions when the review was first mooted and taken control of it, as it had originally planned, rather than backing down in the face of the SRA and BSB.

Conference blues

Finally the Law Society has been embarrassed by having to cancel its annual conference, which was due to take place in less than three weeks' time; some 165,000 solicitors on the roll, most presumably members of the society, and yet it could not get 300 of them to Celtic Manor. The news was quietly put out through the Gazette’s website, with the comment facility disabled.

The spin has been as half-hearted as it has been unconvincing – the society is saying it was aimed at corporate lawyers, which was really not borne out by the marketing I saw. This made it sound like it was about the business of law, rather than business lawyers. The truth is that it was meant to be a revival of the society’s annual conference, which was ditched around five years ago because of low attendance figures.

Did nobody at Chancery Lane see the contradiction in their statement? “While our plans… attracted considerable support from speakers and delegates, regrettably it has become clear that the geographical location presented something of an obstacle to the intended audience.” Clearly the support from delegates wasn’t that considerable, or the event wouldn’t have been cancelled.

I suspect there are two main factors: a lack of engagement among solicitors with the Law Society, which they regard as irrelevant to them; and the difficulty of putting on a 'general' conference rather than one more tightly focused.

When I asked why, if it was meant to be for one sector of the membership, it was simply called the Law Society’s annual conference, this was the answer I got: “It was billed as annual because it is to be held annually rather than anything to do with which section of the membership it was targeted at.” Malcolm Tucker would be proud.


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