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President Christina Blacklaws delivers her inaugural speech

5 July 2018

On 5 July, vice-president Christina Blacklaws became the 174th president of the Law Society of England and Wales and the fifth woman to hold this office. She took over from former president Joe Egan. Christina delivered her inaugural speech at the Annual General Meeting at the Law Society in Chancery Lane.

Inaugural speech

Council members, solicitors, family and friends.

It is a real privilege for me to be able to stand here now as the 174th president of the Law Society of England and Wales and only the fifth woman to hold this office.

First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to Joe for his efforts and support in the last year.

Joe has been an effective president who has given visibility to the high street and shone a light on their needs - particularly on the devastating effects of the reforms to legal aid on small firms. He has made the case - time and time again - and all the more convincingly as he has called upon his own personal experience in delivering civil, criminal and family law to give weight to the arguments.

Joe, we are grateful for your care and concern for access to justice.

And, as council will know, Joe always has a good (well, sometimes to be honest, a not so good!) joke to crack and I am grateful to him for passing his presidential joke book - although I'll never be able to tell them like Joe!

I wish you well in your return to practice and I am sure Clare, your colleagues and most importantly your clients will be delighted to have you back.

I also want to thank Simon and Paul for their support for the past two years in the run up to the presidency. I've loved every minute and working together as a team has been one of the greatest joys.

I am honoured, excited and humbled to pick up the baton at this crucial moment for the profession and for our country.

Time is short, the road is long. These are challenging times for our profession. To name a few:

  • Brexit - We are now gearing up to Brexit day, which will happen on 29 March 2019 on my watch. Hopefully, the White Paper on the future EU-UK partnership - due next week - will provide the certainty that professional services and business so desperately need, including mutual market access.
  • Regulation - A decision from the LSB about changes to the Handbook proposed by the SRA is imminent and will result, I fear, in a seismic change to the profession.
  • Justice - The court reform modernisation programme will be fully underway and yet the criminal justice system itself is crumbling.

 

So, this is the backdrop of my presidential year! But as we set sail on these choppy waters, let's be positive and optimistic - change brings with it significant challenges but also opportunities.

Presidential year plan 2018-19

For the past two years I have had the privilege of travelling around the country and internationally, reaching out to our members to harvest their ideas and understand their problems.

I am humbled by the good work of the profession - paid and unpaid. Not only do you make a huge contribution to the economy, but you also make an enormous difference to people's lives by being by your clients' side every step of the way.

    I thought carefully about what members told me and worked out the areas where I felt I could add most value:
  • Promoting diversity and encouraging social mobility
  • Focusing on the future of law and harnessing the power of legal technology
  • And ensuring the justice system is accessible to all.

 

1. Diversity and inclusion - women in law

So, what will I do?

a. Social mobility

I will continue to support the great work of our Diversity and Inclusion team whilst actively campaigning to encourage access to the profession for the brightest and the best, regardless of their social background.

The challenge of intersectionality faced by women, BAME, LGBT+ and solicitors with disabilities increases the difficulties these groups face. Giving visibility to this and support for ways of overcoming these challenges will be a central part of my programme.

    Therefore, I will focus on:
  • Encouraging law firms to ensure fair pay. These will include a project to tackle the gender pay gap by developing agreed standards and best practice on reporting, which we can promote to the profession and government.
  • Promoting fair recruitment practices including the use of 'blind' and contextual recruitment. Supporting broadening of the Law Society's flagship Diversity Access Scheme and the Diversity Charter.

 

b. Women in the law

Many of you will know that I made a very early start with my women in leadership in the law project. In other words, gender equality is good for everyone: it is not just an issue for 50 per cent but 100 per cent of us. It liberates us from our stereotypes and enables all to thrive in a diverse and supportive environment.

And the timing couldn't be more apt as women now represent the majority of practising solicitors and have been over 60 per cent of new entrants each year since 1990, but still 78 per cent of partners in private practice are men. We have a real problem that despite a predominantly female pipeline, women are not being promoted into leadership positions. It is clear that much more needs to be done.

So, we decided to start an ambitious project to 'shift the needle'.

We started with a global survey, supported by the IBA and Lexis Nexis, and we received nearly 8,000 responses, which makes the survey the largest international survey ever conducted on this topic.

    Some of the main findings are:
  • Unconscious bias was perceived to be the main barrier to career progression for women.
  • Almost half of the respondents said that traditional networks or routes to promotion being male oriented was a reason why so few women reached senior positions.
  • Only 16 per cent reported that visible steps have been taken to address the gender pay gap in their place of work.

The next step is to gather the qualitative evidence and we are doing this, holding women's roundtables during the summer.

We know that more dialogue, clear commitment and tangible actions are needed to achieve full gender equality.

We need a cultural shift in the legal sector, and for that we need your help.

So, today I am delighted to launch our toolkit on women in leadership in the law. The toolkit is a how-to guide to run the roundtables to delve deeper into the barriers affecting gender equality, to understand women's recent, lived experiences and identify solutions to overcome these obstacles.

It offers an opportunity for activism, to empower women to be change-makers and leaders and to engage men in positive, supportive ways.

The qualitative information gathered through the roundtables will feed into our larger research.

Men's roundtables will take place in the autumn and winter - to identify male champions and to harness their support as advocates for our campaign. We'll assess the impact of all the activities.

We will combine the roundtable information, the survey results and our global academic literature review, which we have commissioned into a final report scheduled for publication in spring 2019 to mark the centenary of women in the law.

We want to make 2019 the Year of Women in the Law and we need your help and commitment to make this happen. I'm counting on you!

2. Access to justice

As you would expect from someone who spent 20 years as a children's lawyer and a campaigner on social justice causes, I have a passion for access to justice and will strive to ensure we do everything that we can to protect the vulnerable and disempowered in our society.

We are currently participating on the consultative panels of the government's review of legal aid, set up by the MoJ, on civil justice, criminal justice and family justice.

During my presidency, I will continue to lead the Society's campaign on early advice.

We believe that the current lack of free early legal advice can cause problems to escalate unnecessarily, which is harmful for the individuals involved as well as increasing the burden on courts and the cost to the public purse.

The campaign was launched following the publication of new research by Ipsos MORI, which we commissioned, that shows a clear statistical link between receiving professional legal advice and resolving a problem sooner.

We are calling for legal aid to be reinstated for family and housing cases. Last week we launched a campaign action asking our members to write to the Lord Chancellor about this.

Please do join us.

The crisis across our criminal justice system is ever more pressing, whether that is in criminal legal aid, the disclosure of evidence or the future of this part of the profession. We will continue campaigning and lobbying on these issues - particularly raising awareness on the worrying trend of an ageing criminal profession.

3. Future of law and legal technology

Of course, we can only move in one direction through time so supporting solicitors to prepare for the future will also be a central part of my work.

We should not underestimate the significance of the role that technology will play (some would argue is already playing) in the delivery of modern legal services and it is essential that we stay ahead of the game.

To address these fundamental questions, I will be leading a number of initiatives:

Harnessing our great convening power, we have no launched our LawTech Policy Commission, which offers an opportunity for academics, policy makers, lawyers and technologists to come together to address the pressing legal and ethical challenges of technology.

The Commission is a year-long exploration of the impact of technology and big data on human rights and the justice system, focusing on the use of algorithms.

The first evidence session will take place on 25 July. I have the privilege of chairing the Commission, along with Sofia Olhede from UCL and Sylvie Delacroix from Birmingham University.

We will be taking oral and written evidence from a range of experts. Our sessions will be open to the public and we will publish all evidence provided - we aim to lead the charge in having a public debate about these issues. Please do get involved!

Our report will be published next year.

We will also continue to work closely with the government and parliament to ensure we use the power of legal technology to support economic growth and drive opportunity.

The Lord Chancellor announced last night at Mansion House that the Ministry of Justice is creating a new panel to boost the LawTech industry. I was delighted to be asked to chair this panel. The ultimate aim of it is to enable the UK to become a world leader in LawTech.

We will also look to support the profession through engagement via guidance and access to new technology, to give everyone the opportunity to make properly informed decisions about technology and their businesses and careers. This will include a whole range of multimedia materials and tech roadshows around the country.

Our new partnership with Barclays will be crucial to further this work. By creating legal tech incubators, we aim to lead the way and help LawTech companies to start up and to scale up. The labs will provide physical spaces, open routes to investment and expertise, and offer a forum to connect the start-up community, law firms, entrepreneurs, data scientists, engineers and academics.

I strongly believe that although there are many challenges ahead, there are opportunities for members in equal measure. I am sure that with a concerted and collaborative effort, disruptive innovation can be harnessed by the whole of legal sector from the smallest of firms to our largest global companies.

 

To conclude, may I reiterate that it is a huge privilege to serve the solicitors' profession as its 174th president.

As a profession, we have always adapted and thrived. With the information, opportunities and tools we will provide, solicitors will be able to flourish in this brave new world.

I will work tirelessly to support, promote and represent our profession, of which I am extremely proud to be a member.

There is so much that needs to be done - some of it urgent - and I am ready to roll up my sleeves and get on with it. However, I can't do it alone. So I am appealing to everyone in the room to help me.

Together, we can do great things.

Thank you for this amazing opportunity to make a positive difference for our profession and for the society we serve.

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