I. Stephanie Boyce presidential address

I. Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, delivered her presidential address on Monday 22 March 2021.

Opening

Thank you, Paul, for that introduction, and to all of you who have chosen to join us to recognise the start of the new presidential term.

My thanks also to David, my predecessor, who guided the profession through the end of the Brexit transition, and throughout the pandemic before stepping away from the role.

It is a great privilege to serve as the 177th president of the Law Society of England and Wales.

Although we are unable to gather in person, due to the real and present threat of the pandemic, I am delighted to be able to address you from 60 Carey Street opposite the Law Society – albeit remotely.

Even though the surrounding streets of Carey Street are quiet, the legal infrastructure that underpins our country is bustling.

Across the country solicitors, law firms, in-house teams, freelancers and our courts have not stopped.

They have been there every step of the way helping people, businesses and government to get back on their feet and will continue to deliver these vital services after lockdown lifts.

A force for change

This is an unexpected time, an unpredictable time, and ultimately, a time of change – for solicitors, for their organisations, and for the country as a whole.

When the times are so uncertain, it is all the more important that people are able to turn to trusted professionals, to explain the law, advise them on their rights and their obligations, and give them some sense of surety.

Solicitors have always been someone to turn to in a crisis, and now we are witnessing a crisis experienced by the whole of society.

But while solicitors can and do play the role of the safe port in the storm, the steady hand on the tiller, the trusted adviser – we can also be a force for change.

During my term as president, this force for change will be powered by three sources:

  • equality, diversity and inclusion, and social mobility
  • access to justice and technology
  • mental health and wellbeing

First: equality, diversity and inclusion and social mobility

As the first person of colour to become president of the Law Society, I stand as living testament to the diversity, dynamism and growing social opportunity in the legal profession.

The profession is approaching a moment of reckoning:

  • in the past few months three women lawyers, Georgia Dawson, Rebecca Maslen-Stannage and Mary O’Conner, have been appointed as senior partners of international law firms or as chairs of multinational management consultancies
  • on the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias has started to become a business priority
  • large law firms have taken their diversity pledges one step further by considering diversity targets for promotions and career progression – equally, in-house teams of large corporations, such as Coca-Cola and NatWest, are setting minimum diversity requirements for their law firms panels

But there is much more to be done. In Lady Hale’s words “although the battleground has shifted, the battle is not yet won.”

The Law Society’s research suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities across the sector. Across the country lawyers with disabilities, women, LGBTQ+ and Black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers continue to face obstacles in our sector.

In my term as president, the Law Society will become even more central in the effort to challenge harmful stereotypes:

  • we need genuine equal opportunities and equal treatment in the legal profession and in the judiciary – having achieved greater diversity at entry level, we must address the retention and progression gaps mid-career
  • we need to do the best we can to close the gender and ethnicity pay gap

Anyone with the necessary skills, knowledge and commitment to become a solicitor should be supported, enabled and empowered to stay in the profession and thrive in this profession for as long as they wish to be a solicitor.

It is my mission to leave a profession more diverse and inclusive than the one I entered.

Second: access to justice and technology

As we exit this time of crisis, we will do our utmost to secure a justice system which emerges in a stronger position than before – the phoenix from the ashes.

I want to work alongside practitioners to ensure that access to justice and the rule of law are in clear focus as the government lifts restrictions.

Over the coming year, we expect progress to be made on the Ministry of Justice’s reviews of criminal legal aid, the sustainability of civil legal aid and the legal aid means test.

These reviews are vital to our profession, which delivers advice and representation to those who would otherwise have none.

Throughout the pandemic, the use of technology – both new developments, and existing technology being used more widely – has been a lifeline for the justice system.

The new chancellor of the High Court last week stated his support for the permanency of remote hearings by stating “such a move 'could only benefit' the Business and Property Courts, […] It would ‘maintain the ability of clients and witnesses to participate in hearings remotely and enable the press and members of the public to observe hearings remotely.”

Online courts are to be welcomed, because as the chancellor states they increase access, streamline case management and can be more cost efficient. However, it is our view that these technological developments need to be accompanied by:

  • appropriate alerts on the systems about when and how to contact a lawyer
  • alternatives for those who do not find online procedures accessible – owing to lack of equipment, limited internet access, poor digital skills or disability or affordability
  • contingency plans for when systems fail

Third: digital engagement, mental health and the rule of law

The justice system ultimately relies on those who operate, navigate and facilitate it – solicitors.

Practitioners need support as their role changes, and as the world changes around them, all the while ensuring the rule of law stays central.

Social distancing restrictions and lockdown measures have changed the way the Law Society has interacted with those we serve – our members.

We, like so many other organisations, have had to fully venture over the digital frontier. We have found that the doing so provides us with yet more avenues to reach our wide and diverse membership, improving accessibility for all.

Today, I am delighted to launch our new virtual course on Introduction to Legal Technology – this course sets outs the fundamentals on what is law tech, the types of technology available for your practice and considerations for designing, procuring, and using lawtech. The course is free and available to all. You can find it on our website through our learning platform. A certificate of completion is awarded at the end.

The pandemic has also placed great physical and mental strain on many, necessitating a renewed focus on mental health and well-being. LawCare reported a sharp increase on legal professional seeking help for anxiety and stress.

Speaking to solicitors across the country I have been impressed with the myriad of initiatives that have emerged in firms and in-house teams to address these vital needs. From the “Be Kind Initiative” of the Conveyancing Foundation to new books on managing vicarious trauma in the legal profession and staff-led peer groups where people can share difficult personal moments that they are going through.

We celebrate and support these initiatives. We have complemented these by continuing to support LawCare, working with the firms and in-house teams and setting out our own virtual wellbeing and mental health hub, guidance on how to work remotely, and through providing careers resources.

Good mental health and wellbeing must be valued and encouraged, and where environments do not facilitate this, change must be realised.

But mental wellbeing is hard to maintain in the face of reckless, needless hostility.

In recent years we have seen increasing attacks on lawyers and the integrity of our profession. We often hear that the rule of law is a fundamental British value – well it is lawyers that ensure this is so, and they must be able to do their job without fear of intimidation.

As president I will also engage with the government in a constructive and vigilant manner on proposed reforms to judicial review and the Human Rights Act. Proposed changes must not weaken our rights and must be consistent with the rule of law.

Conclusion

This three-point plan is ambitious, I do not deny it.

But it would be remiss to begin my presidency while lacking such ambition – the ambition to secure change is what ensures change and we must all be part of the change that we want to see.

That fellow council members elected me, humbles and emboldens me in equal measure.

The time is ripe for such change. The foundations are ready to be laid, the door is ready to be opened, the trail is ready to be blazed.

We must direct this energy into real, lasting and positive change in our sector.

And with my vice president Lubna Shuja, colleagues, the reputation and resources of the Law Society, and the experience and drive of the profession, I can see it is within reach.

We all must do our bit to ensure that we come out of this unsettled time:

  • more resilient
  • more adaptable
  • more united than ever

We will play our part to ensure we become one profession with a shared common vision and a shared determination to serve the rule of law and a profession that truly reflects the communities we seek to serve.

Thank you.

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