Presidential address to mark the re-opening of Chancery Lane

On Wednesday 28 July, I. Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, delivered a speech to mark the re-opening of Chancery Lane and to celebrate her achievements during the first 100 days of her presidency.

Introduction

When I became president of the Law Society of England and Wales a few months ago – months which have flown by – the situation was markedly different to that of today.

The Law Society’s Hall was empty. Chancery Lane was quiet. Firms and offices across the country were ghostly – but the lawyers staffing them certainly weren’t.

And throughout this pandemic the legal infrastructure that underpins our jurisdiction has been bustling. Solicitors, law firms, in-house teams, freelancers and our courts have not stopped, just as the people of England and Wales have not stopped needing vital legal advice from trusted professionals.

Members of the Law Society, alongside barristers, judges and others, kept the legal wheels of this country turning – and due to a deadly virus, they often did so from their homes and under inexpedient circumstances.

And as the country re-opens, we know that the legal profession will continue to do what they do best – to advise their clients, to promote access to justice, and to defend the rule of law.

Amidst understandable doubt, after a year and a half of lockdowns and losses, home-working and health scares, we solicitors remain a profession that can be relied on in the direst of circumstances.

Re-opening

But today is not about the re-opening of the country, but rather the re-opening of 113 Chancery Lane.

While we have continued to provide every service we possibly can during the pandemic period – accreditations, guidance, COVID support, and more – there are some things that were just not possible.

Physical access to the library and the Reading Room, benefits that were previously enjoyed and used by many members, could not be safely and responsibly made available.

I am delighted to say that this is no longer the case. Last week, the library began opening on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and this will continue throughout August.

It is wonderful once again to be able to offer our indispensable library services. During the pandemic we operated a remote enquiry and document delivery service, which was utilised by many members, but it is good to have the library back in its full glory.

We will, however, continue to offer this document delivery and remote enquiry service from Monday to Friday, to give our members flexibility.

But should you make the journey to Chancery Lane, you will find our expert library staff once again ready, willing and able to help you:

  • navigate our collection of legal textbooks, legislation, law reports, journals and subscription databases
  • explore our practical guides and database of enquiries, and
  • take advantage of our enquiry service, with our librarians carrying out tailored research for you

All members can enjoy these services, alongside anyone visiting on behalf of a solicitor, such as trainees, librarians and paralegals, as well as Legal Practice Course students and Solicitors Qualifying Examination applicants.

So please, come and once more experience the joys of Chancery Lane, and see your Law Society working for you.

I want to walk you through some of our newer workstreams, and some advances achieved since I became president.

Environment

Many solicitors are already giving climate-related advice to clients and they expect their Law Society to take a leadership role in the legal sector’s fight against climate change and journey towards sustainability.

But to take that leadership role, we know we need to show what we are doing as an organisation. We have listened, we have reflected, and we know this is the time to act.

Earlier this year we made a joint statement with the Solicitors Regulation Authority in which we recognised that our success as organisations delivering professional services worldwide necessitates consideration of our environmental performance.

We committed to providing a system that prevents pollution and environmental damage, that maintains transparency on our environmental performance, and promotes a positive environmental culture shared by all.

Our environmental management is delivered to the highest levels through an accredited ISO 14001 International Management Standard for Environmental Management Systems.

We are currently in the process of agreeing targets on energy, paper, travel and waste, taking into account the effect the pandemic will have had on these and ensuring that the reductions we aim for continue to be ambitious. We aim to maintain our streak of meeting every reduction target since they were first set in 2015.

But change starts at home, and in this case in the home of the solicitor profession.

Diversity and inclusion (D&I)

When I gave my inaugural speech here, back in March, the first of the priorities I listed for my time as president was equality, diversity and inclusion and social mobility.

Steps have been taken to ensure my mission – to leave the profession more diverse and inclusive than the one I entered – is progressing, not least agreement of our overarching D&I strategy, our participation in the government-commissioned Social Mobility Taskforce for professional services, and our member-facing work on how the pandemic has impacted inclusion and diversity.

But there is one step in particular I want to talk about today, and that is our Diversity Access Scheme award. I am delighted to report that 15 DAS scholarship awards have been allocated this year, following 300 applications and 34 interviews – my thanks to colleagues Leila Lesan, Sally Brett and their team for their hard work securing additional funding and sponsorship, and for promoting the scheme, and to all our sponsors without whose generosity we would not have been able to increase the number of places this year, at a time when there is an increased need for support.

We had some truly outstanding candidates and the beneficiaries are a very impressive and diverse set of individuals from less advantaged backgrounds or who have faced multiple obstacles. All of them, we are sure, will be a credit to the profession.

Of course, this is one way of ensuring those who have the talent, skill, and diligence to be a credit to the profession, but not the means, can do so.

Continuing to increase the number of DAS places remains a priority for me during my term as president and beyond.

Lawtech and ethics principles

Of course, not all the change we are experiencing is due to the pandemic, or combatting climate change, or securing a more representative profession: some is down to technology.

I am delighted to today announce the culmination of a long-standing piece of work on legal technology and how it is utilised by the profession.

Computer technology, the internet, AI – all have been thought of as something of a lawless space at various points. But lawtech – that cannot be lawless by definition. Equally, we do not want the burgeoning UK lawtech sector to be hamstrung with onerous and unnecessary requirements.

So we have been hard at work to create a series of lawtech and ethics principles, to empower the practitioners to become aware of, understand and apply best practice in relation to ethical considerations around the design, development and deployment of lawtech.

Lawtech is a broad and varied space. Tools and processes for the legal sector can cover:

  • document automation
  • advanced chatbots and practice management tools
  • predictive artificial intelligence
  • smart legal contracts, and
  • knowledge management and research systems

With such breadth of potential for innovation, it is all the more crucial that there is a well-established foundation on which to make ethical judgements about the use of lawtech.

These principles have been discussed, refined and consulted on since 2019, when we conducted extensive desk research on the use of technology in legal services, barriers to adoption and innovation, and lawtech governance landscapes at home and abroad. In 2020 we conducted a series of interviews with members of the profession to understand better the environment and the needs of the sector, and to ask whether they would find it useful if we shared best practice on ethical considerations.

We then published a discussion paper considering these questions, and a summary of the main literature available, receiving responses from law firms, lawtech providers and trade associations.

Alongside this, we conducted qualitative interviews with stakeholders including the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Legal Services Board, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

But what are the principles? We have identified five, namely:

  • compliance – lawtech should be underpinned by regulatory compliance; the design, development and use of lawtech must comply with all applicable regulations
  • lawfulness – lawtech should be underpinned by the rule of law; design, development and use of lawtech should comply with all applicable laws
  • capability – lawtech producers and operators should understand the functionality, benefit, limitations and risks of products used in the course of their work
  • transparency – information on how a lawtech solution has been designed, deployed and used should be accessible for the lawtech operator and for the client
  • accountability – lawtech should have an appropriate level of oversight when used to deliver or provide legal services

All five of these exist under one overarching principle: that of client care. Solicitors have a paramount professional duty to act in the best interests of their clients. The client should be at the centre of lawtech, determining business requirements and how to consider the other principles in a proportionate way.

We hope, and have done everything we can to ensure, that these principles will be central to the developing lawtech sector and the use of legal technology by practitioners and firms in England and Wales.

Closing remarks

Of course, I could mention a lot more that we have done in the last few months – successfully lobbying for key amendments to the Overseas Operations Bill, helping firms adjust to the new normal post-Brexit and transition period, and supporting practitioners through the pandemic.

But my time is running short, and we need to open the floor. So thank you, and I look forward to taking your questions.

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