You could certainly say that 2015 has been an interesting year for Bristol Law Society. It has been a year in which the foundations set in preceding years have braced the Society against the challenges and allowed us to stand strong and continue building.
From a position some years ago where BLS’s proud history could, potentially, have ended, the Society has re-emerged as a thriving local law society representing and supporting the Bristol legal sector.
- Business Plan
In 2012, the Society developed a 3-year business plan for 2013 to 2015 to address the reducing membership and finances and has successfully carried that plan into effect. BLS has achieved the aims of:
- Increasing our membership;
- Growing our income and capital reserves;
- Providing more and varied benefits to members;
- Forging stronger links with our strategic partners and sponsors;
- Improving our engagement with ASWLS, the Joint V and The Law Society;
- Increasing our representational function.
Having met the aims of that plan, BLS carried out a survey to help understand our members’ needs and where BLS can improve. We have now drafted a 3 year plan for 2016 – 2018 to ensure the Society remains focussed and strategic in the delivery of its services to members.
The new plan sets out to:
- Continue developing the strength of BLS;
- Secure the future of the Society through careful financial management;
- Increase and improve benefits to members;
- Provide representation on every level;
- Promote Bristol as a legal centre of excellence;
- Continue supporting and promoting the city’s academic institutions;
- Improve engagement with other professional bodies in Bristol;
- Further our involvement with ASWLS, the Joint V and The Law Society;
- Ensure BLS remains relevant and meaningful for its members.
The plan will be signed off and brought into effect from 2016.
We have continued to drive our corporate membership scheme and increase the number of corporate member firms. At the end of the first year of the scheme in 2013, BLS had 13 member firms. Last year, that number increased to 22 firms. In 2015, we retained all existing firms and brought 4 new firms on board.
The corporate members are now: 3PB (Chambers), Barcan + Kirby, Beale & Co, Burges Salmon, Capstone Solicitors, Clarke Wilmott, Cooke Painter Ltd, DAC Beachcroft, Foot Anstey, Fussell Wright, Gregg Latchams Limited, Guildhall Chambers, Humphreys and Co, Irwin Mitchell, Lyons Davidson, Michelmores LLP, No 5 Chambers, Osborne Clarke, Queen Square Chambers, Simmons and Simmons, St John’s Chambers, TLT, Thrings & Paragon Costs, Veale Wasbrough Vizards and Wards. Revenue from the corporate membership scheme has now reached £48,000 p.a.
With those corporate members and our individual members, BLS now has a membership of over 4,000 and is one of the largest local law societies in England.
Next year BLS will aim to re-engage with individuals whose membership has lapsed, bring new corporate and individual members on board, increase our numbers of in house lawyers and provide further support and services for the non-lawyer members of corporate member firms.
- Bristol Law Society Recruitment and Careers Service
Since being reintroduced in 2013, the service has grown year on year thanks to the hard work and expertise brought by Helen Read. Despite spending more of her time on her Business Development Manager role than was envisaged, Helen has continued to develop the service and remains committed to its future and to providing the benefits for our members and member firms.
Revenue from the service grew from £12,829 to £17,625 this year, including an element reflective of the sizeable undertaking for the UWE Placement Scheme in which 16 students were given vital work experience by member firms. On the back of those placements, 2 students were offered paralegal roles.
Listening to the views of members and taking account of the marketplace, Helen has also developed our direct advertising board, which is a popular alternative for some of our members and makes use of our increasing Twitter and LinkedIn followings.
2015 has been another year where it has seemed that the number of actual changes to our profession, let alone consultations, have been relentless. We have seen dramatic increases in Civil Court Fees, cuts in Criminal Legal Aid and the widely-criticised tendering for duty contracts, to name but a few. BLS has been active in representing the views of our members, while acknowledging that there isn’t always a single view across the whole of the membership.
5.1 Consultations and other responses
We began the year by lobbying local MPs on the proposed introduction of the increased court fees and received scant response, but perhaps they had other things on their minds with the election looming.
BLS responded to the wide ranging SRA Regulatory Reform Proposals, covering such things as small firm compliance, ABS authorisation, third party managed client accounts, outsourcing and routes to qualification.
In May, we organised Crispin Passmore from the SRA to come and discuss these proposals and the tabled changes to consumer credit regulation. We submitted our formal response to the consumer credit consultation in August. Happily, this was one of the more successful consultations.
We also took the opportunity to meet with the LSB to feed back, for the first time, a practitioners’ view of the performance of the SRA and fed in many views from our membership. It is hoped that this will assist in guiding the future of SRA regulation.
In September, we responded to the MOJ consultation on Court Closures, although we are fortunate that the proposals are not such a threat to our region, as in other areas.
BLS attended the SRA event ‘A Question of Trust’ at the M-Shed in October and, along with a range of practitioners, gave a view on the appropriate level of enforcement, following a previous survey of the public on the issues. The differences within and outside the profession are an interesting challenge for the SRA to consider, but there will no doubt be more consultations to come.
We will also be responding to the MOJ Consultation on Preserving & Enhancing the Quality of Criminal Advocacy.
Thank you to all those who have contributed to these responses and, in particular, to Ian Kelcey.
5.2 Representative Bodies
Bristol Law Society has seen a resurgence in our involvement and engagement with both the Association of South Western Law Societies and the Joint V Law Societies in recent years. Thanks very much to the efforts of John Moriarty and Janis Purdy, we had not entirely fallen away from these influential groups, but our renewed interaction has been a great benefit to BLS.
The Association of South Western Law Societies (ASWLS) comprises Bristol, Devon and Somerset, Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, Cornwall and Plymouth Law Societies and represents over 10,000 members. As a regional body with a direct line to London, the Association shares views, ideas and experiences affecting the law and the region at tri-annual meetings and interim telephone conferences. ASWLS regularly puts forward joint responses to consultations to take advantage of our combined sway.
2016 will see Bristol’s turn to chair the ASWLS meetings and I look forward to being their President from the summer of 2016.
The Joint V Law Societies (JV) are Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. Again, the combined force of these large local law societies, representing over 40% of solicitors outside London, assists with putting forward weighty views to the Law Society, the SRA, the MOJ and others. We also share knowledge and experiences for the benefit of the individual societies and our members.
This year, we have been up to Chancery Lane to meet with the officers and chief executive of The Law Society to discuss their operations and 3 year strategy, attended a meeting to consider how they communicate with members, with a particular focus on their communications to and through local law societies and Bristol has met with The Law Society separately to review and be a sounding board for how The Law Society could improve its relationships with the local law societies.
We recently had our first visit to Leeds when they hosted their first JV meeting and had the opportunity to view their new premises. We had a useful presentation from Richard Moriarty, the Chief Executive of the LSB, on Legal Regulation and a talk from Tim Martin, the Chief Executive of the SBA, The Solicitors Charity, on how they can assist solicitors in difficulties and their families.
BLS is keen to continue our involvement with these groups and share in the mutual benefit that brings.
5.3 National Conferences
BLS attended the annual Presidents’ and Secretaries’ Conference in Chancery Lane in May and the Local Law Societies’ National Conference at Celtic Manor in June. Both were opportunities to meet with other law societies and discuss current issues in the legal marketplace and those affecting our individual societies.
It was an honour to be invited by Monmouthshire Law Society to address the Local Law Societies’ National Conference at Celtic Manor on BLS being a ‘Beacon of Excellence.’ It was also a good opportunity to reflect on our recent successes and the reasons for those and pledge to continue our efforts.
I also attended the opening of the legal year at Westminster Abbey and the dinner at Chancery Lane the night before. It was a superb occasion and a great opportunity to meet with the heads of law societies and bar associations from across the world and swap stories of the trials and successes we all endure and enjoy. It was remarkable that many of the same issues were felt in such different jurisdictions.
5.4 Other Professional Bodies
For some time, BLS and its members have been working to strengthen our ties with other professional bodies in the city and the region. As well as working closely with the Women Lawyers’ Division and the Junior Lawyers’ Division, we have hosted an event for the junior division of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and have recently met with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales South West and the Institute of Directors in the South West. From that meeting, we have agreed to work more closely to encourage cross-professional contact and networking and organise joint events where possible. Both as BLS and as part of that collective, we will also try to engage with other professional bodies, such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments and others.
BLS recognises the importance of the sponsors we have and that they enable us to host many of our events, including our flagship Annual Awards Dinner in October.
In 2013, BLS set up strategic partnerships with the University of the West of England, Lloyds Bank and Smith and Williamson to reflect their status as more than simple sponsors and to commit to our reciprocal benefits over 2 years.
Unfortunately, 2015 began with the loss of one of our Strategic Partners, Smith & Williamson, who were also the Society’s accountants.
BLS worked hard to replace them and were very pleased to bring Milsted Langdon, with whom we have had close connections for many years, on board as both accountants and as a Strategic Partner.
We also developed 2 new Strategic Partners this year with Willis and Wessex Searches and have enjoyed a successful first year working with them.
In her Business Development Manager role, Helen Read has also forged new links with a number of new sponsors and continued our relationships with many others.
I would like to thank all of the strategic partners and sponsors.
In the year when CPD points ceased to be compulsory, BLS has been mindful of the potential changes in uptake at our conferences and seminars. Thankfully, by continuing to deliver high-end conferences with top quality speakers, we have maintained the numbers at our 3 main training events, the Dispute Resolution, Private Client and Property Conferences. These were hosted by TLT, Thrings and Osborne Clarke respectively and my thanks go to them and to Derek Jenkins, Gary Lightwood, Michael Westbrook, Becky Moyce and Clair Ponting for organising such successful events and to Hobs Reprographics for producing excellent quality materials for the conferences.
In addition, we recognise that many of our members benefit from events and seminars around softer skills and have put on an extensive program of smaller events to address this, including seminars on ABS’s, Advocacy, Legal Apprenticeships, Risk & Compliance, Lawyers as Managers and How to Run a Successful Law Firm.
We also hosted The Law Society’s seminar on Business and Human Rights.
We will continue to react to the changing market forces and seek to provide relevant and useful training to our members across the board.
- Website & Social Media
BLS has embraced new forms of social media and developed both our LinkedIn and Twitter accounts as an additional method of communicating with our members and supporters. We now have over 1,400 twitter followers and our Annual Awards Dinner had a retweet reach of over 40,000.
The development of the new website is ongoing, but the delay in the launch date arose from a decision to use the opportunity to replace the ageing BLS Membership Database that had come to the end of its effective life. The new database will integrate with the new website and form a single point of operation for the Society. It will allow easier communication with our membership, online bookings for courses and events and online membership renewals, amongst other features. It was felt that the benefits these advances would bring justified the further time involved in developing the website and the database.
Perhaps the main issue BLS have faced this year is one that has been on the horizon for some time. Having been in the enviable position of rent free accommodation as part of the Crown Court building for as long as we can remember, we were aware that the Ministry of Justice were likely to start charging us rent at some stage, which would be critical to our budget. However, we were somewhat surprised when we received 2 simultaneous notices to quit the Law Library in January, giving us 1 and 6 months to leave.
We took immediate action, sought advice and rejected the 1 month notice. We then set about considering our options and came up with a variety of plans to ensure we were able to continue operating, whatever happened.
As well as devising emergency plans, we looked at the property market and engaged the services of a commercial agent to search for premises to rent or buy. At the same time, we carried out a review of our finances to run projections on the different options.
The result of those investigations was that a purchase was the more financially viable option and the more sensible for securing the future of the Society. While it would be a large capital outlay for the Society and would require further funding, the reality is that servicing a loan would work out more favourably per year than the rent and service charge on equivalent properties and we have the capital reserves and projected budget to manage that.
While we kept searching for suitable rental properties, we looked at several potential purchases and began formulating a view of the market. We also took the opportunity to assess what the Society requires in its premises to continue best serving the needs of our members and continue with the development into a modern, business-run society.
Following the disputed notice, a meeting took place with the landlord and their agents and it was left that they understood the efforts we were making to vacate the law library and would confirm to us how that fitted into their plans before they took any further action.
Since then, we have made efforts to acquire a number of suitable premises and are continuing to do so. We have conducted a survey of our membership on the most important requirements for any premises and carried out a similar exercise with council.
We now have the specification, financial strategy and support to effect a move that could cement the future of BLS and, rather than regretting the demise of our current occupation, are looking forward to a move to new premises that better fit our purpose, our members and our autonomy.
BLS relies on the goodwill and generosity of its volunteers and supporters and always has.
It has often been said of the Presidency that it cannot be done alone. Even Nick Dell in 2012, who came perhaps the closest to experiencing that, had the support of council and others to aid his and the Society’s plight.
Now understanding what a year as President involves, my immense thanks go to the council and executive of Bristol Law Society for all that they have given and that the Society has achieved.
Equally, I want to give thanks to our wonderful office team of Clair Ponting and Helen Read, who have supported all that we have achieved this year and driven a number of successful initiatives to benefit our members. It seems like it has been some time since BLS has had such an active and involved office team and it is fantastic for the Society and great credit to Clair and Helen that they share the Society’s values and work so hard to achieve our aims.
On a personal note, I would also like to thank everyone for the amazing support they have given me during 2015, without which I cannot imagine what it would have been like.
2015 saw another busy year of events, with over 25 being hosted by or at BLS, as well as those we have attended externally.
This year, we brought back the lunch for Past Presidents of the Society in order to retain links and preserve their experiences, which was a great success and will be repeated.
We held our 3 professional dinners and 3 full day conferences, sold out at our Summer Party and Annual Awards Dinner and had record numbers at our Music Quiz as well as good attendance across our other varied social, networking and training events.
With the possible exception of the confetti cannons at the Annual Awards Dinner, it is some feat that all our events ran so smoothly and I am grateful for all those involved in the organisation and again to Clair Ponting and Helen Read for tying everything together and running excellent support from the office.
The BLS Charity this year was St Peter’s Hospice, who do so much to support not only those with terminal illnesses in and around the city, but also their families and friends during those difficult times.
St Peter’s have to raise in excess of £18,000 every day to continue operating and, while it is only a drop in the ocean, I am delighted that BLS has managed to raise almost £4,000 towards that cause this year.
I would like to thank Edd Smith from St Peter’s Hospice, for supporting and encouraging our efforts.
After the challenges that BLS has faced, I am very proud that 2015 has been another successful year for the Society and very thankful for the hard work, drive and innovation that came before and during the year to achieve that.
Through the efforts of all those involved in the last few years, BLS has returned to its rightful position as a vibrant and relevant local law society with a bright future, working to represent and support its members and the Bristol legal community.
BLS continues to enjoy a strong council and committed executive, representing the range of legal practices across the city and region, to take the society forward into 2016 and beyond and I would like to reiterate my thanks to all of them for their time, effort and support.
I would especially like to thank Ben Tarrant, Clair Ponting, Helen Read and John Moriarty for everything they have done for BLS and to support my year in office.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve as President of Bristol Law Society and look forward to seeing it continue to flourish in the future.
President of Bristol Law Society 2014/2015
26th November 2015