Apathy is forced on our busy solicitors

MENTION the Law Society of Scotland to an ordinary middle-aged solicitor at the coalface and he will usually make a wry grimace and remark that he doesn't think it does much for him. This is not fair, but it is understandable.

More than any other type of lawyer, it is the ordinary solicitor, practising in the traditional areas of house conveyancing and personal business, who has seen his practice challenged and eroded in recent years by stifling regulation and crippling competition.

He feels betrayed and marginalised and is angry at the Law Society who, he feels, should somehow have protected him against these reverses.

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He knows he is not being wholly rational in this reaction but he can't help it.

The latest threat, as he would see it, to his attempts to earn a modest crust, is the spectre of the ABS. This is the alternative business structure, whereby non-lawyer companies might become owners of or shareholders in a legal firm. "Tesco law", as it is colloquially known.

Such a solicitor hears the great and the good and the successful within the profession exclaiming about the marvellous opportunities such innovations will bring to gain new business and "increase market share".

He groans to himself. He is not a businessman. He grew up with the nave idea that professional service was to be available to clients who consulted him, but not to go after them like a salesman to sell them his "products".

Smooth young managing partners of large firms stridently demand that Scotland must allow ABS as otherwise they will not be able to compete "on a level playing field" with the London firms.

Our ordinary solicitor can't contain his indifference to the plight of the big firms. They used to be the same as him, just bigger. But now they are as irrelevant to his practice as Patagonia - and even more remote. Crucially, though, they have the clout he lacks.

They will get their way. He hears confident talk about healthy competition, and winners and losers. His heart sinks: he knows he's a loser.

He has served his clients for a lifetime. Many of them rely on him implicitly. He is competent, approachable and affordable. But he is a loser.

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What will he do about ABS? The answer is, almost certainly, nothing. He reads his Journal, and notes reports of the debate on ABS held at the National Gallery recently. But he is too hard-pressed dealing with his daily work to inform himself to the level he feels necessary to participate in the debate himself.

He notes the warnings given about the risks of "sleepwalking into a minefield", as one participant put it. He has the feeling that ABS will be another bad thing, but he has no space in his week to work out why.

He knows the Law Society deplores the apathy of its members, but whenever he tries to put aside time to compose a letter or attend a meeting, something comes up: his phone rings, or a transactional crisis blows up, or a key employee resigns.

It's all very well for the society to ask for participation and debate and ownership of the future, but is he not paying his rapidly spiralling annual subscription to his professional body so that they will do all these things for him? His apathy is forced upon him.

A management specialist he once consulted told him he should be "proactive", and in control of his circumstances. Strange advice, he reflects, to give a man who can't even control his mouse.