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Uncertainty ahead in 2017

Uncertainty ahead in 2017


With Brexit looming and the profession's reputation under attack from the press and the public, John van der Luit-Drummond predicts the upheaval of this year will continue into the next

2016, a year that can be used as a noun, verb, and adjective, will live long in the memory; for some, it’s been wholly positive, for others, less so. Regardless of one’s subjective view, this political shock fest of a year is about to give way to an uncertain future, especially for the legal profession.

The legal sector spoke with ‘one voice’ last week following publication of the Bar Council’s ‘Brexit Papers’, designed to help the government identify legal and constitutional priorities in the wake of the Leave vote. The Law Society is also set to launch a report which will, Chancery Lane says, present a comprehensive overview of the profession’s needs and expectations from the article 50 negotiations.

The forthcoming report will bring together key areas of concern, such as continued access for solicitors to practise in EU member states; recognition and enforcement of judgments; collaboration in policing, security, and criminal justice; promotion of England and Wales as jurisdiction of choice and ensuring London remains the gold standard hub for global disputes; and ensuring legal certainty is maintained throughout the process of withdrawal.

In an exclusive interview with Solicitors Journal, the society’s president, Robert Bourns, said that uncertainty over Brexit was putting pressure on businesses, including law firms, to make important decisions about their futures. ‘If people are not satisfied that they are going to have a regulatory regime that suits and provides them with access to the EU marketplace,’ he said, ‘then I have concern that during the first half of next year either a very large financial institution or law firm will start making decisions that will have an adverse impact.’

Thus far, firms are dealing with Brexit uncertainty in varying ways; some are already voting with their feet. The Law Society of Ireland has revealed that over 800 England and Wales-qualified solicitors have been admitted to its roll this year as City firms including Freshfields, Slaughter & May, and Hogan Lovells look to secure a second jurisdiction in the wake of June’s referendum result.

News has also emerged that nine in ten partners at UK firms fear losing talent to international players post-Brexit and over half plan to move elements of their operations to an EU jurisdiction. Relocation is also a concern for in-house counsel, with four in ten ‘definitely’ relocating to offset the impact of restricted access to skilled European labour.

There is clearly a great deal of work to be done in 2017, not just on Brexit, but in raising the profile of and pride in the legal profession, something which has been sadly lacking this year. Solicitors, barristers, and judges have long been unfairly maligned by politicians, the press, and – since its advent – by users of social media, but perhaps not so often or as viciously as in 2016.

Since the referendum vote, the rise of populism has spread to all corners of Europe and even played havoc with the US presidential election. Back home, the rejection of expert opinion – including legal – will have come as an ironic relief to former Lord Chancellor and Brexiter Michael Gove, whose recent comments about solicitor advocates proved he was probably never a friend of the profession.

This newfound love for post-fact politics was also evident during the article 50 hearings in November and December, with the learned opinions and decisions of senior lawyers and judges dismissed as the machinations of a sneering metropolitan elite hell-bent on frustrating the will of the people. Even now, with the arguments played out in open court, there is still reluctance at best – and wilful ignorance at worst – to accept that 11 Supreme Court justices are not ‘enemies of the people’.

But what does this mean for the average solicitor: should they worry about Brexit timelines or the profession’s reputation being dragged through the mud? To the first question, the answer is a definitive 'yes'; solicitors’ firms, just like any other business, need certainty to flourish. Without a clear roadmap from the government, uncertainty will continue to take hold and the consequences could be dire. As to the second, an attack on one is an attack on all. The public must have faith in solicitors for continued economic growth and societal protection; solicitors ignore that at their peril.

So, here’s to 2017 and uncertain times ahead.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD