The Scottish solicitors’ profession continues to face a shifting legal, economic and political landscape.
In the past year, the referendum decision to leave the European Union – notwithstanding the preference in Scotland to remain – has led to a great deal of uncertainty, with more questions than answers about the likely impact on our professional and personal lives at this early stage.
The economic outlook is also unclear, not least in the north-east due to the ongoing impact of the oil and gas downturn.
However, despite the challenges, there are signs of optimism among solicitors and the wider business community. The solicitors’ profession continues to grow and the importance of the legal sector, which contributes more than £1 billion and 20,000 high quality jobs to the economy, remains significant.
But the profession, and the Law Society, must continue to adapt to changing circumstances. As set out in our newly published annual plan for 2016/17, we are determined to provide a leading voice during the process of withdrawing from the EU, and to ensure the interests of our members are represented.
The strands of work laid out in our annual plan include 30 key projects which will see us introduce new services for members, concentrating on areas of business support, career growth, professional support and wellbeing, and continue to press for modern and flexible legislation which protects the public and meets the needs of today’s legal profession.
The profession itself is changing in important ways. Figures published last year by the Society showed that, for the first time, there were more female solicitors than male, at 51% – a trend that is likely to continue.
That so many women see their future in the law is encouraging, though the changing profile of the profession presents its own challenges. For instance, a significant gender pay gap exists and female solicitors continue to be relatively under-represented in senior positions.
As part of our equality and diversity work, we have carried out in-depth research and published an equality toolkit and 10 equality standards for employers to adopt. In addition, our recent digital campaign ‘let’s talk progression’ has generated discussion among our members on how best to tackle this issue.
As well as promoting equality among solicitors, we want to ensure the profession reflects the diversity of our society. It’s important the route to qualification as a solicitor is accessible to men and women from all backgrounds and not solely those who have the financial means.
We were therefore delighted to launch the Lawscot Foundation in September. The foundation, a registered charity, will offer financial assistance and mentoring support for students from less advantaged backgrounds to help them during their studies.
Earlier this year, we also launched a new student associate initiative for those studying law at Scottish universities. Students associates are the first affiliate category for the Society following plans put forward in our five-year strategy to open our door to those within the legal sector who are not qualified solicitors.
In the year ahead, we will continue to ensure that we respond to the needs of today’s legal profession, the clients they serve and the solicitors of tomorrow.
Eilidh Wiseman is president of the Law Society of Scotland