Solicitors weren’t always so approachable

26th May 2020

The legal profession is steeped in tradition, with annual processions of senior judiciary in wigs and gowns seemingly unchanged since their predecessors ordered public hangings and other harsh penalties. This could be construed as evidence that the legal system is out of touch, out of date and in need of a big shake-up; or maybe tradition and ceremony can coexist with 2020 legal processes.

Certainly the legal profession has evolved over the centuries; and the pace of change in the 75 years since World War 2 has been relatively rapid, driven by social change affecting the range and volume of clients needing legal services as well as the backgrounds of those choosing a legal career. The process is ongoing but, setting that aside, a brief review of the past can put things into perspective.

Biblical references

Lawyers have existed for millennia. There are numerous biblical references to lawyers, as the profession existed in the Roman, Greek and other early civilisations. Their fortunes waxed and waned over the centuries and they were thriving in late-medieval Europe, including Britain. The Inns of Court in London’s Temple district have been the hub for barristers since the 14th century.

Long before it united politically with England in 1707, Scotland had a well-developed legal system and Scottish Law continues to govern many aspects of life north of the border.  The private entity now known as the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet dates back to 1594 and job titles such as Writer to the Signet, Procurator Fiscal and Sheriff remain a distinctive feature to this day.

Other professional societies were formed by groups of lawyers in the UK prior to 1800, but the 19th century saw one of the most significant advances, the formation of what is today called The Law Society of England and Wales. Often simply called The Law Society, its existence began with the election of a committee in 1825 and it was granted a Royal Charter by King William IV in 1831.

Dickensian image

During the early 1800s, it was mainly the wealthy that had need of lawyers for matters of property, inheritance and suchlike. Lawyers weren’t much loved in some quarters; Charles Dickens portrayed them unflatteringly, as with the unscrupulous and manipulative Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House, though Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations was painted as honest and pragmatic.

Those Dickensian images may have had lasting influence well into the 20th century. They were probably still prevalent when, following the partition of Ireland a year earlier, The Law Society of Northern Ireland was established in 1922. Since the Solicitors (Northern Ireland) Order 1976 took effect, the LSNI has acted as a regulatory authority for multiple aspects of solicitors’ activities.

It was not until 1949 that The Law Society of Scotland was established as the professional body for Scottish solicitors. Its members are expert in Scottish Law, which differs from English Law in areas such as intestacy rules and powers of attorney. Devolution has also brought variations in tax rates, stamp duty and care fees criteria as well as a different regime for university tuition fees.

Perceived as unapproachable

In the early post-war decades, solicitors were often still perceived as aloof and unapproachable, particularly by the wider spectrum of clients needing legal services as affluence increased. More home ownership, more business start-ups, more relationship issues and more litigation brought more ordinary folk into contact with the legal profession, yet law firms seemed publicity-shy.

The main cause of the publicity-shyness was that until the mid-1980s solicitors were barely able to promote their services at all. They depended on local awareness, word of mouth, a basic entry in the telephone directory and a brass plate by the office entrance. The Law Society changed that in 1986 by ending its ban on advertising legal services; its counterparts elsewhere in the UK did likewise.

Wigs discarded

The ability of lawyers to look and to act like modern professionals was further enhanced by the Lord Chancellor’s decision in 2007 that judges and lawyers in civil and family court cases would no longer need to wear the white horsehair wigs customary since the 17th century. Consultation within the profession had shown that a majority felt that wigs were ‘anachronistic’ – past their sell-by date!

Around the same time, a review brought plans to separate formal regulation of law firms from the other activities of The Law Society. The Legal Services Act 2007 led to the creation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, operationally independent of The Law Society. This was in line with the trend towards arm’s-length regulation already practised in the financial services sector.

Alternative structures

It had also been deemed that the structure of law firms also needed updating, partly to deal with the personal financial liability involved in joining traditional partnerships. The phased 2007 act provided for ‘Alternative Business Structures’, which also enabled non-lawyers to own or manage law firms. The first ABS gained its licence from the SRA in 2012, but the overall rate of take-up was sedate.

So, fully-modernised solicitors are now free to put themselves out there, subject of course to normal advertising standards and to specific requirements laid down by the SRA. Nowadays, a wide range of appropriate advertising and promotional methods are available, including social media. Firms keen to make themselves highly approachable often enlist the help of specialist marketing experts.

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