The attitude of “some in positions of immense responsibility” in the legal profession represents a “direct threat” to an innovative future for legal services, the chairman of the Legal Services Board has claimed.
David Edmonds said that “if what we have seen so far is any indication of what is to come, categorically ABSs are a success”, but he accused the Law Society and Bar Council of trying to slow the pace of change.
Mr Edmonds’ six years at the helm of the LSB ends on 30 April and speaking in London yesterday, he tied the success of ABSs to independent regulation, which he said “underpins innovation and enterprise”.
But he said some responses to the Ministry of Justice’s call for evidence on the regulatory regime “showed a visceral dislike not just of the LSB but for the fundamental principles of independent regulation”.
Self-regulation – which in their responses the Law Society and Bar Council urged the government to restore in large part – “inevitably introduces more regulation not less, through, for example, making greater attempts to restrict competition”.
Mr Edmonds said that over the past six years, the professional bodies have “resisted multi-disciplinary partnerships, resisted foreign ownership and private equity, resisted a flexible labour market and tried to slow down the pace of change”.
He said: “I guess that if I had any advice as I leave this post in seven weeks time it is to the Bar Council and the Law Society – yes, you have 800 years of history but much of that has been about fighting for your own self-interest.
“That is a proper role for a trade union, but accept that this is your role – focus on that, accept independent regulation, welcome initiative and change. You might just find that it is your members who flourish as a result.”
Mr Edmonds praised the “diversity and innovation in the provision of legal services” that has emerged since ABSs were first allowed. “It shows us a glimpse at the future of what legal services provision will be. What we are seeing so far are the first steps down a long road.”
He insisted that having businessmen or a private equity firm in charge “does not lead to reductions in quality of services or a lessening – if that’s even possible any further – of trust in the profession”.
The regime also allowed existing law firms to respond, Mr Edmonds continued. “By removing out-dated and unnecessary restrictions on ownership and management of law firms, we have allowed for an influx of both financial and intellectual capital that has historically been out of bounds for law firms in the consumer market place.
“This approach will give lawyers – and new business partners – much greater flexibility in how they organise and collaborate both with each other and with other non-lawyer professionals.
“And in doing this we have seen, and will continue to see, new ways of working brought into the legal services market and the benefits of new competitive pressures being harnessed. The legal services market is responding to ABS in the way that it needs to. And that is through the provisions of innovative new services.
“The type of services that reflect what the consumer wants and needs rather than what the law firm decides it wants to offer.”