There is no doubt that the legal profession is going through, by its traditionally slow-moving standards, a period of rather frenetic change. While we have not begun fully to understand the impact of the Legal Services Act, and we may not for some years yet, it is clear that a number of legal service providers are looking at new ways to provide and to market their services. Those might be in the form of ABSs or they might be reinterpretations of the more traditional referral model, but we can say with some degree of certainty that the landscape is shifting. And, as that landscape shifts, it is timely for the Bar, and indeed for all legal professionals, to assess that landscape and consider what opportunities might present themselves. This is not a new concept. Many have been assessing that landscape for some time and a number have made their first moves. However, for the Bar in particular, progress has been more gradual. It has been a more recent decision for sets of chambers to consider how they can most effectively invest in their futures.
And, as they consider their options, there is one clear challenge which faces them, and that will be how any new business opportunities can be exploited without diluting the quality which has enabled them to occupy their current market position.
At the Bar, we have been actively considering our place in the new legal services environment, both in terms of regulation and the way in which we structure our practices. We have seen the creation of a new, independent regulator, the Bar Standards Board, and an oversight regulator in the Legal Services Board, though it sometimes appears to covet a super-regulator role. We have also seen a significant emphasis placed on the role of the consumer, whose interests at times appear to trump all others. In the midst of all of this change, it might be easy to forget the qualities and values that are so important to all strands of this profession, as service providers, perfectly properly, try to find a competitive advantage.
I recently addressed an invited audience in Grand Court Number One of the Cayman Islands on the topic of ‘Ethics and the Rule of Law’. These are two concepts, which are deeply engrained in all lawyers, and for many are part of the reason why they were attracted to the profession to begin with. One of the issues I considered in advance of that speech was how and to what extent those concepts remain relevant to the environment in which we are currently operating.
As I set out in that address, one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law is access to justice. That means effective access to justice in the public interest and ensuring that our standards are not diluted. One issue that is currently causing real concern is the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA). It was proposed that such a scheme be rolled out for criminal advocates from 1 April of this year. However, disagreements as to the scope and rigour of such a scheme have resulted in delays. The concerns are that the system will not demand the standards of excellence that the justice system requires if proper and effective access to justice is to be afforded, but will be content with some lowest common denominator of competence. Our justice system, access to justice and the rule of law demand, and require, excellence from our advocates.
And that is something that we must insist on across the board. As new models are formulated, particularly alternative business structures, there are a number of different partnership models that might be explored and some of those will be attractive to external investors. We will need fully to understand and appreciate how we are to maintain our values and ethics while operating in what might be an entirely alien environment, with shareholders and investors who have a keen eye on a return. There is an inherent risk that services that were once bespoke and approached with the greatest of care and diligence instead become commoditised and rushed because that is what the business model demands.
For barristers and solicitors there will be many options to grow, to expand and to change. But we must not lose sight of the standards that are so fundamental to the services we provide. I believe that the brightest future lies in a commitment to excellence, not merely to ‘good enough’.
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