Robert Bourns reflects on the strengths of the legal sector and encourages solicitors to take pride in their work and speak up for their profession.
By now, most of us, including parliamentarians, are back at our desks, with both Houses resuming business this week. As MPs and peers continue their constitutional duties, we too continue our campaigning work on a range of important issues for the legal profession, as set out in my last entry.
The past months have emphasised the real privilege it is to hold the position of president of the Law Society. Everywhere I go, across England and Wales and beyond, I meet solicitors working hard to deliver valuable and valued advice and representation to their clients. This only strengthens my confidence that there is a need to promote the profession. We call this campaign Pride in the Profession.
The start of the new parliamentary session provides us with the opportunity to reflect on this campaign and what taking pride in our profession means today:
1. Supporting people throughout their lives, and facilitating business and economic growth
Solicitors make a substantial contribution to the economy which is often cited – annually we contribute almost £26bn of earnings and £3.6bn of exports to the UK economy, and train and employ over 370,000 people. However, we contribute much more: solicitors have established and maintain a network of offices, across England and Wales as well as globally, providing access to the justice system. We have done so because we have been alive to opportunity and have delivered value to our clients by supporting their personal ambitions and needs, often at a time of anxiety or distress, and, in the case of our corporate and institutional clients, enabling them to do business. It is more important than ever that this contribution is recognised, particularly in light of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. I will cover this issue in more detail in a future blog post later this month.
The knowledge and skills we have are coupled with professional values. First and foremost is our essential independence from client interest, recognising a duty beyond that owed to the client: to the integrity of the justice system. This independence means that we can be relied upon to deal appropriately with our clients' confidences (commercial and personal), maintaining that confidentiality, but always advising and dealing subject to the rule of law. Through a network of offices, and applying our knowledge and our standards, we provide advice and support to many millions of our fellow citizens, assisting them in their personal and business lives.
2. Celebrating our diversity
We are a powerfully diverse profession. More can and should be done to celebrate and build a truly diverse profession, which will thrive as we capitalise on differences of experience, perspective, ethnic and cultural tradition, and differences in characteristics and faiths, with a shared enthusiasm and respect for a liberal, inclusive tradition and the rule of law.
The Law Society's Divisions (such as its Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division, LGBT+ Lawyers Division, and Lawyers with Disabilities Division, to name just a few) and its relationship with others, such as Society of Asian Lawyers and Association of Muslim Lawyers, also provide real and invigorating opportunities to see the enthusiasm, energy and rigour within the profession, the cultivation of which will continue to be one of my priorities throughout the year.
On this subject, I was pleased to see a number of solicitors recognised in the New Year’s honours list, demonstrating the breadth of diversity in the legal services sector. The practitioners included solicitors providing legal services to the government and the judiciary, leading international negotiations on climate change, facilitating economic regeneration in Wales, dealing with sensitive situations involving maritime hostages and many others. These solicitors are representative of the excellence of the legal profession in England and Wales and their contribution has rightly been acknowledged – I wrote to them last week congratulating them on their achievements.
3. Challenging disparaging comments
The profession is constantly subjected to disparaging or hostile rhetoric that is undeserved and, in many cases, damaging to the integrity of the justice system.
Given that we facilitate the resolution of most disputes without engaging the courts, and facilitate the vast majority of personal and corporate transactions, it is vital that we do not ourselves, nor do we permit others to, undermine our professional principles or standing. In so doing, they undermine both access to and the integrity of the justice system in this country.
On this note, I was very concerned to read the remarks of Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, when last week he alleged there was '£440m a year that law firms are sucking out of the NHS', due to so-called 'ambulance chasing'. Where a person suffers an injury through negligence, they should be entitled to seek compensation for that injury and have access to specialist legal advice . Such commentary is divisive and harmful. We have a duty to challenge it, particularly where the language is directed to confuse practitioners' interests with those of our clients, often excusing changes to policy that prejudice our ability to represent those who are weak, vulnerable or unpopular.
Therefore, as we start 2017 I exhort all solicitors to take pride in the work they do, continue demonstrating value to their clients and speak up for our profession. I will continue to do so in the next six months of my presidential year. This week, for example, we are urging parliamentarians to make these points on behalf of the solicitors’ profession, including in a Westminster Hall debate on access to justice on Wednesday 11 January.