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The themes of 2011, part 1

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures


Equality and diversity: forefront of legal argument

It is hard to resist the journalist’s natural inclination at this time of the year to fill space with predictions for the year ahead. But 2011 is a hard year to predict – 6 October is unlikely to be the big bang so beloved of headline-writers over the years (myself included), although undoubtedly some organisations will seek first-mover advantage by making announcements that day.

But it is worth looking at some of the issues I expect to be covering in considerable detail over the next 12 months on Legal Futures.

Alternative business structures

There will, of course, be much to write about alternative business structures in the year to come, and so I won’t dwell on them here except to flag up one seemingly esoteric but actually crucial issue that is really starting to exercise minds: the separate business rule. Can the regulators draw their rules tightly enough to stop a big business structuring their legal offerings so that the ABS just focuses on reserved work, while the unreserved work is hived off into an unregulated business?

This leads onto the issue of reserved legal activities, but as the Legal Services Board (LSB) won’t , and has not seemingly done much work on the wider issue, I don’t suppose we’ll see much substantive progress on that front in 2011. Goodness knows when the will-writing decision would have been made had it not been, erm, fast-tracked.

The Legal Services Board

I am hearing more and more complaints from the approved regulators about what they view as the LSB’s micro-management and excessive requests of information. The regulators won one battle when it forced the LSB to back down [2] over its intention to conduct the education and training review itself. None has yet wanted to go public in the interests of good relations, but maybe their frustrations will eventually get the better of them.

The outcome of the stand-off over quality assurance for advocates [3] will be an interesting one. Having talked tough, the LSB backed down feebly [4] over its demands for immediate lay majorities on the boards of the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board (which now won’t happen until 2013 and 2012 respectively). If it doesn’t get its way over QAA (and I should think the Bar Standards Board will fight its corner hard on this one), will it see through its threat to take action this time?

Also, the three-year term of LSB chairman David Edmonds is up this spring. I believe he wants to be reappointed and for the Ministry of Justice not to do so would arguably send a mixed message on ABSs.

Equality and diversity

It is hard to get away from equality and diversity on many fronts, especially with the Legal Services Board having unveiled a model of the questionnaire [5] it expects staff at every law firm, chambers and other legal business under its jurisdiction to carry out. It is notable how often we are now seeing arguments over the impact of various reforms – from legal aid to naming and shaming lawyers against whom the Legal Ombudsman has upheld complaints – on black and minority ethnic lawyers as one of the main reasons not to move forward with them.

The main diversity ‘strands’ are well known, but it says much about the legal profession that class is an extra element in law’s diversity debate, pushed along by the Milburn report on fair access to the professions. The survey issued shortly before Christmas about City law firms discrimination against those with working class accents [6], while the cause of some amusement, also struck a bit of a chord. This is a deep and multi-faceted issue for another day.

There are some more themes to pick out, and I will continue this next week.