Modern Law sat down with Nick Emmerson, the President of The Law Society to discuss his plans for the coming year as President, what he hopes to achieve, and his advice to Law Society Members.
What inspired you to pursue a career in law, and how did you eventually become the President of The Law Society?
My route to being a lawyer was founded on a fascination with how society operates and the role of law within that. Being a lawyer puts you at the centre of that and I thought that pretty cool when I was young and actually still do! Being a solicitor also gave me the opportunity to travel and work overseas fulfilling my other fascination with East Asia. I have had the privilege of studying and working in China and Japan for about 10 years.
The Law Society was always in the background throughout my career, but it never really engaged me, and I never really engaged with it. I was asked to stand for election to the Law Society Council, which I did and won the election. This led me into the heart of the Law Society and getting stuck into the great work that the Law Society does. After a few years, Council gave me the honour of electing me as their 179th President.
As we enter 2024, what are your primary goals and priorities for The Law Society under your leadership this year?
As momentum towards a general election in 2024 builds, we are engaging with all parties to ensure that the next government understands the importance of investing properly in the justice system so that the fundamental right to access to justice is upheld.
I want to help demonstrate to the next government the value of the legal profession as an economic powerhouse and the need to invest in it to help it thrive.
Our legal system is a true global brand, recognised and respected the world over and it remains central to the UK’s place on the international stage. The world trusts the stability and quality of our courts and tribunals, our arbitration and mediation centres, our law and our legal professionals.
I also want to show the contribution our profession makes domestically, with solicitor firms providing high quality jobs and prospects for young people in every town and city across England and Wales.
From the criminal duty solicitor in Ceredigion, racing across the county late at night to provide legal advice to their client at a police station; to the conveyancer in Cornwall, helping a local family secure their dream home; every solicitor in our profession supports people daily with the challenges and the opportunities they face.
I want to ensure the voices of solicitors on the ground are being heard on the national and international stage and look forward to meeting solicitors based in all corners of England and Wales.
Local law societies provide a key link between the Law Society and our members. As a past president of Leeds Law Society, I intend to continue to champion the positive role that local law societies play in our great towns and cities.
And most importantly, I want to demonstrate the value our profession provides individuals within wider society. We uphold laws and ensure justice is done, helping everyone in society navigate through some of the most complex and difficult times in their lives.
Access to justice can’t and must never be taken for granted. Yet both our civil and criminal legal aid systems are in a state of emergency. We can’t have a state funded legal system without state investment. Without it, the promise of justice for all will slip further and further away.
I will continue our campaign on legal aid deserts and highlighting the dire state of the justice system to those in power. I will lead the Law Society’s response to the Civil Legal Aid Review and push forward with the fight to restore fair funding to the criminal legal aid system.
I will also continue to defend solicitors and challenge the criticism that many are facing for simply doing their jobs.
Can you outline any specific initiatives or programs you plan to introduce or enhance in 2024 to better serve the needs of the legal community?
A few months ago, we published our 21st Century Justice Green Paper, which is intended to place the Law Society and the solicitor profession at the forefront of changes that are already underway, shaping them to best serve the rule of law, access to justice, legal services consumers and the profession, rather than responding after they have already been made.
The project places the profession right in the centre of the conversation to help ensure its long-term sustainability, as digitalisation is changing the way legal services are delivered.
Consumer trends are also changing. Those on low-middle incomes who need legal help want more transparency on cost and more flexibility on how they work with solicitors – they are more likely to shop around on price and put faith in online reviews.
This spring, we will be publishing our 21st Century Justice White Paper, which will incorporate feedback from our members to present a revised set of proposals.
In this election year, the White Paper will be important in setting out a practical set of policies which have broad consensus and that a new government could implement to realise the benefits of access to justice to the wider economy and society.
We will also continue to build on our ongoing campaigns around reframing justice and ethics. I will work with members in Wales and the National Board for Wales to contribute to the discussions on the future direction, shape and administration of justice in Wales.
How do you anticipate addressing the evolving challenges in the legal profession this year, and what strategies do you have in place to adapt to any unforeseen circumstances?
We face a future with its fair share of challenges and opportunities. In my presidency, we step closer to the bicentennial year of the Law Society, marking 200 years of dedication and commitment to our members.
We are also approaching a General Election and I will ensure that the voice and views of our profession are heard by those in power.
I am sure the year ahead will have a number of challenges to throw at me. We have big obstacles to overcome and the huge potential of the profession to harness.
We will demonstrate that we are an outward-facing and internationally minded Law Society.
Are there any key legislative or policy changes that The Law Society aims to advocate for or influence in 2024, and what impact do you expect these changes to have on the legal landscape?
The Law Society will continue to scrutinise government policies, especially the new Safety of Rwanda Bill which potentially undermines the rule of law and the constitutional separation of powers.
Regulation also remains a key issue for the profession, with the Legal Services Board carrying out an independent review of regulatory events leading up to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s intervention into Axiom Ince.
Another priority area for us is funding for criminal defence solicitors who are the backbone of our criminal justice system.
At end of last year, we took the government to court over levels of criminal legal aid funding, and we expect a decision to be made early this year. We hope the High Court will recognise that the decision by the Ministry of Justice not to award the recommended 15% uplift to duty solicitor fees was irrational and the government reconsider it, so that criminal legal aid lawyers have a chance at continuing their vital work.
In terms of technology and innovation, what advancements or updates can we expect from The Law Society to support its members in staying abreast of the latest trends in the legal sector?
This year, our focus is on advancing our work on Artificial Intelligence (AI), so that we are well-informed on AI developments and open to opportunities to directly collaborate with members who are working on cutting-edge AI innovation across the legal sector.
We recently published a guide to generative AI, which helps members make more informed decisions when deciding whether and how generative AI technologies might be used.
We are also exploring the opportunities, challenges and impact of technology as part of our 21st Century Justice campaign, in particular identifying how we can unlock the potential of AI while protecting consumers.
Last year, our response to the government’s pro-innovation approach to AI regulation advocated for more clarity for our members to enable the profession to capitalise on the technologies’ benefits.
We are also looking at understanding businesses’ accessibility needs when it comes to technologies and remote processes in law firms and organisations. This initiative is being led by the Law Society’s Disabled Solicitors Network.
It is incredibly important that we consider adjustments needed for disabled people to use software as the legal sector explores the use of legal technologies to enhance the practice of law.
Cyberattacks pose a significant and growing risk to the legal sector. We continue to work with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to review our guidance for solicitors and law firms to understand and mitigate these cybersecurity threats. The safe and secure transfer of data for personal and professional purposes is fundamental to ensure that people’s personal data is protected, and businesses are able to operate seamlessly across borders.
We are following the developments of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill as it goes through Parliament to ensure that meaningful human involvement is considered and included within automated decision-making processes.
How does The Law Society plan to enhance its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout 2024, and what specific actions are being taken to promote a more inclusive legal community?
I am committed to supporting diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to social mobility and diversity among the judiciary. I want to ensure our headquarters on Chancery Lane reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our membership.
The Law Society has shared good practice and what works to advance diversity and inclusion through our impact stories and D&I Framework. We have also published guidance to support disabled students and junior lawyers in the workplace to promote a more inclusive legal community.
We continue to encourage more flexible and part-time training opportunities to be offered in the legal sector. Our Women in Law Pledge also brings gender equality to the forefront of the conversation and we want organisations to show their support by signing the pledge.
The #10000BlackInterns scheme offers paid work experience for young Black people which the Law Society takes part in and we encourage the profession to also get involved. We’re also taking part in #LegalPride to highlight the experience for LGBTQ+ solicitors.
This year marks 20 years of the Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme. The scheme aims to help improve social mobility and diversity in the legal profession by supporting people who face exceptional social, educational, financial or personal obstacles to qualifying as a solicitor.
In terms of professional development, what new resources or opportunities will The Law Society offer its members to ensure their continued growth and success in their legal careers?
The Law Society is committed on fostering the constant dedication and success of both its members and non-solicitors. To that end, we developed a new accreditation, the Residential Property Accreditation, which serves as a critical instrument for achieving seamless, secure and well-informed presence in the residential property sector.
Additionally, as part of our commitment to member success, we plan to launch more products in the future, providing professionals with enhanced tools for continuous growth and distinction in their legal careers.
We also offer section membership which provides additional support for professional development in the areas of law leadership and management, risk and compliance, property law, private client legal field, competition law and dispute resolution. New in 2024 in relation to these is the inclusion of bigger discounts for library research services and conferences.
How will The Law Society engage with law firms, legal practitioners, and the broader community in 2024 to foster a strong and collaborative legal ecosystem?
Every individual solicitor has a special role to play in society and the Law Society has its own important role to play in supporting every single one of the 216,000 solicitors who make up our profession.
The influence and access the Law Society wields, must be put to use for the benefit of all of our members, both across England and Wales and overseas.
I want to fling open the doors of the Law Society, both physically and virtually, and invite our entire profession in to participate.
I will advocate for the value that solicitors add to every part of England and Wales when speaking to government, Parliament and senior stakeholders. This means highlighting not just the role our profession plays in providing access to justice but also our economic heft as a successful business sector.
Lastly, what message or guidance would you like to convey to The Law Society members and the legal community as a whole as we embark on the challenges and opportunities of 2024?
The state of our profession is strong. We are a powerful and influential profession. Our sector attracts the brightest and most talented individuals to serve the values that underpin our justice system.
To me being a solicitor is special. It’s a profession rooted in history and tradition, but most importantly, it plays a vital role in our democracy and society.
As solicitors, we must never underestimate the role we all play in ensuring access to justice, upholding the rule of law and supporting the public through challenging moments in their lives.
Nick Emmerson, President, The Law Society