Scotland’s small towns and communities have been greatly diminished in the past 25 years. Our distinctive High Streets have been decimated as local retailers, banks and post offices have disappeared. Yet amid this transformational change, the local law firm has managed to stand firm. A proud presence in hundreds of locations. But now these professional stalwarts too are feeling the pain.
From Wick, over to Oban and Fort William, down to the Borders and Dumfries, from the Orkney Isles, to Shetland and Stornoway, the local solicitor has been woven into the fabric of society for generations. However, the closures of sheriff courts across communities in Scotland coupled with the demise of bank branches, building societies and post offices has severed long-standing commercial connections.
A conference in the Signet Library in Edinburgh, arranged by United Employment Lawyers and the WS Society, will be turning the spotlight on our smaller Scottish firms, where local lawyers still make up the majority of the legal profession.
The WS Society, or Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, is one of the oldest professional bodies in the world. The Society has been part of Scotland’s legal framework for several centuries. The Society works to maintain the core values of excellence, permanence and integrity in the solicitor profession. The Society’s membership is diverse and evolving. Many solicitors from small and regional practices are represented. The Society recognises that these lawyers are the mainstay of the country’s legal profession, delivering essential services to clients and communities, whilst juggling the pressures of running and modernising small businesses in increasingly challenging times.
United Employment Lawyers works with law firms across the country, helping them deliver specialist services at a local level. There are many great Scottish firms and their heritage, history and local connections speak volumes about their services and their tenacity. Their legal work is a microcosm of local life. Their business includes buying and selling of homes, businesses and farms; the wills and estates of those who pass away; and the contracts of employment, some of which go back to the ancient days of servant and master. The firms have been the backbone of communities with lawyers offering pro bono legal help as members and trustees of local charities, not-for-profit organisations and business organisations such as the Rotary Club.
The historic growth of many of Scotland’s market towns is down to the “feein” or hiring markets where those looking for agricultural work would be signed up under statute for work for six months.
Local sheriffs had the power to compel the payment of wages – the beginnings of labour law in Scotland. The growth of local law firms – and it is astounding how many local Scottish firms are over 100 years old – comes in part from the increasing legal requirement to formalise this process, giving securing of tenure.
Local law firms, with their estate agency and conveyancing services, are the 21st century legacy of our land and feu system that has evolved since the Middle Ages. Scotland’s small town law firms have kept up their signage and been a reassuring presence in so many of our towns and villages.
However, increasing regulation, the requirements of professional legal indemnity and insurance and the demands of compliance and risk management have taxed the very viability of many local firms. While large city firms have been forced to merge, local firms have in many cases soldiered on. Yet the disappearance of other professional services such as the local banking network and the accountant has put extra pressure on local law firms.
But Scottish lawyers, by their nature, are problem solvers and local solicitors, who have often made a conscious decision to serve in the community where they live, are working to find fresh ways to make their businesses work. It also stands to reason that we need to look at the sustainable career opportunities for ambitious young lawyers who wish to serve the communities where they were raised and where they understand the local people and issues.
This is the primary reason why UEL and the WS Society are hosting a major conference to look at the challenges and the opportunities. The contribution that local law firms have made to Scottish life has been greatly under-estimated and we feel the time is right to recognise the importance and the significance of that contribution and ensure it prevails for many years to come.
The Small Law Firm Conference at the Signet Library, Edinburgh, Thursday 30th May, organised by the WS Society and United Employment Lawyers will be chaired by Bruce Beveridge WS, Chief Executive of Storas Uibhist. Other speakers include Simon Erlanger, the managing director of Harris Distillery; Alastair McLean, director of commercial banking at RBS; Malcolm Mackay WS, founder of United Employment Lawyers; Dr Patricia Graham, a consultant clinical psychologist with the NHS; Callum Murray, founder of Amiqus Resolution; Brian Inkster, founder of Inksters Solicitors; Iain Burke, Partner with Bannerman Burke; Coral Bain WS, Head of Risk and Compliance, Anderson Strathern; Graeme Brown, Chief Financial Officer at Thorntons and Katie McKenna, Head of High Street Member Engagement at the Law Society of Scotland. The conference is open to all. For more details, click here, or contact Anna Bennett WS, WS Society, telephone 0131 220 3249 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.