Gary Lightwood, President – Annual Awards Dinner Speech
High Sheriff of Bristol, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Welcome to the Bristol Law Society’s ninth Annual Awards Dinner.
For the first time, we are sold out this evening - so well done! I think this is an indication of the success of the past Dinners and the increasing enthusiasm for the event and for the opportunity to celebrate what is excellent about the work, PAID AND UNPAID, that we, as a profession, do for and in the community.
My standing here before you as President of BLS has been a long time coming and almost didn’t happen.
From an early age, whilst doing my Law A level, I discovered a sense of justice and fairness and pursued this through Law School at what is now UWE and began my career with a Law Firm here in Bristol.
I had a career hiccup, 8 months into my training contract, I decided to join the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy as an aviator, as one does, but after four short years, I found myself drawn back to the law and returned to Bristol with my now long suffering lovely wife Henrietta in 1995, joining the Bristol branch of Pattinson and Brewer, where I have loyally remained and to whom I am so grateful for their support this year.
I did not become a lawyer for the perceived earning potential – which is probably just as well having spent most of my career in personal injury litigation and family law!
No, what drew me was the desire to achieve justice for those who needed help. To help the small person against the large opponent. Every decision actually making a difference to a person’s life to a greater or lesser extent.
Until recently, the justice system in England and Wales, although not a perfect one, was the envy of the world.
However, times have changed, and this is under threat and not just of course in PI litigation but for many of us in perhaps different ways and of course not just in respect of being able to make a living as a lawyer.
Fundamental access to justice has been eroded. Legal deserts are developing, and Courts are closing, with those that are left massively understaffed but doing their best. Citizen Advice Bureaus have closed and litigants in person are becoming more and more common, creating even more strain on the Courts who again do their best to help un-represented members of the public simply trying to access justice.
Lawyers are feeling the pressure. Elizabeth Rimmer is here with us tonight from LawCare, having kindly agreed to join the judging panel for the Awards this evening - and thank you for that Elizabeth.
I’d like to specifically mention LawCare actually; a Charity which is the excellent and increasingly busy confidential service provided by a team of volunteers with legal backgrounds for lawyers who need assistance and support dealing with these pressures, spanning the legal career from law student to retirement.
The work of a lawyer has never been more demanding.
Obviously, not all lawyers confront the same challenges, but we have all been tarred with the same “fat cat” brush and face a public perception, fuelled by some parts of the media and encouraged by Governments and others that seem to understand the cost of everything but the value of nothing.
My first engagement as President was in fact to sit on a panel hosted by the Legal Services Board to discuss trust in lawyers. Statistics were provided by one of the panel members, one of which was that only a tiny percentage of 18 to 21 - year olds trusted lawyers but that 85% of the over 50’s trusted lawyers. The initial inference was automatically that lawyers are lacking in transparency, resistant to change and in it for themselves.
As the only practising lawyer on the panel, I found myself probably the most vocal that evening, and challenged the interpretation of that statistic. How many 18 – 21 year olds have yet to need to instruct a lawyer? The message I conveyed was that the vast majority of our clients, once they have had the need for our services, value what we do and trust us. Of course, this excellent relationship with our clients never seems to make the news!
It’s all about perception and we must never miss an opportunity to challenge the less well informed or those with an agenda who cast unfair and un-evidenced aspersions upon us and the work we diligently do for our clients.
What would society be without lawyers – rhetorical!
I would suggest that in society, lawyers are a bit like the bass player in my band, Men in Hats. He contributes to the all-important rhythm section but is never really appreciated by the audience. But, they would miss him in the mix if he weren’t there!
It can seem to some that our very nature as lawyers, being tenacious, diligent, loyal and determined, is, in some areas of the legal community, actually being relied upon, perhaps even exploited, to fill the gap in legal services left by the cutbacks; services that are desperately needed by often the most vulnerable.
We lawyers will do what we can to help people, but this seems to be taken for granted by some and in 2018 it cannot be right that charities, such as the Bristol & Avon Law Centre and lawyers working in their spare time or pro bono, bear so much of the responsibility to fill this increasing gap.
That being said, when judging for the pro bono award, which is sponsored by LawCare, I was awe – inspired by the work and selfless initiatives undertaken by our Members and this was a particularly difficult award to judge as all the nominations were so impressive.
I will admit, I have thought about another career in recent years and I know many others have. I have had difficulty with what I have seen as a disregard for access to justice. A disregard for the rule of law and the lawyers who are its custodians.
However, with my involvement with BLS and particularly over this past year as President, I have had the privilege of experiencing and recognising the professionalism, talent and energy of our Members and their commitment to the work that they do for their clients and I have been inspired, to paraphrase one of our greatest wartime leaders, to keep battering on!
So, we must continue to fight to maintain and protect our standards, independence and integrity so fundamental to a fair and robust justice system, essential to any democratic and diverse society.
And I didn’t mention Brexit once…!
As I look around the room tonight and as I have done in recent years, I note that I am no longer one of the youngsters in this profession, I’m not one of the eldest either!
But certainly, I am now one of the elders on the BLS Council! This is good thing. It shows that the next generation care, they want to get involved and make a difference. They want to network, widen their knowledge and appreciation of the legal community and do their bit.
BLS, established in 1770 and celebrating its 250 anniversary in a couple of years, now represents approx. 4,500 Members. It is a member of the Joint V group of local Law Societies, which includes Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds and is also a member of ASWLS, which includes Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, Devon and Somerset, Plymouth and Cornwall. Many of their Presidents are here tonight.
This collaboration of local law Societies effectively enables us to promote the interests of 15,000 Members between us and to amplify their voices from a position of numbers to those who seek their views - and even sometimes to those who do not!
But we are listened to as a result of this strength in numbers.
This year, BLS has continued to engage in consultations, has hosted information gathering roundtables and events with the Law Society, the SRA and the LSB and others. We have provided education conferences and social networking events and are now looking to a future collaboration with the wider Bristol and Bath business community to share ideas and promote life and work in our wonderful cities, about which we shout too little and should shout louder!
I will be shot if I do not also mention No12, The Meeting Rooms. After a difficult start to life in our new premises last year, we have spent this year putting the finishing touches to our conference, meeting and mediation suites at our HQ, at 12 Colston Avenue.
Some of you will have already used the facilities and feedback has been extremely positive. If you haven’t already, please do come along and take a look. All these rooms are for hire to the local profession, with some elements covered in the corporate firm package together with member and bulk booking discounts. We are your Law Society so please take advantage of your professionally neutral facilities to host meetings, events and mediations.
I told you this has been a long time coming. I became involved with BLS in 2003 when my then Managing Partner John Davies was the President of Westminster and Holburn at the same time as our very own Chairman, John Moriarty, was President, for the first time, of BLS. The short version of events is that they conspired to recruit me, and the Hotel California clause has applied ever since, “you can never leave”!
Not that I have wanted to. It’s an inspiring place to be
So, if you haven’t already joined the Society or even thought about joining Council, I would invite you to consider it. You might be surprised how relevant, effective and fun it is.
Tonight, is one opportunity when we can feel justified in celebrating and being proud to be part of the legal profession and to recognise those who have shone and achieved extraordinarily in their efforts.
You will see displayed on the screens behind me throughout the evening summaries of the excellent work done by those shortlisted for an award and I look forward to congratulating the winners later.
Some thank yous are in order.
I would like to thank UWE particularly as our lead sponsor for the Dinner, and I look forward to welcoming Noordin Shehabbuddeen from UWE on to the stage shortly to say a few words, but also to thank all our other sponsors and strategic partners for their involvement and support not only with the Dinner but also with the Society throughout the year.
I would like to thank the BLS Council members for their efforts this year and also the BLS staff:
Helen Read , Head of Operations and Clair Ponting, the Events and Membership Coordicator and PA to the President and Executive Committee who have worked miracles to provide tonight’s celebration and also throughout the year holding the ship steady and most definitely on course.
John Moriarty, our Chairman, who’s partly responsible for my BLS journey, for his ongoing dedication to the Society and for the support he has given me personally.
Ceri Beveridge, our Event Organiser for her excellent work, yet again with the Dinner, in helping bring everything together tonight. Her work is far from done!
Justin Potter – Daniels of JPD Productions and his team
Our technical wizard for tonight’s sound and lighting and for his help and patience with my video!
And of course, thanks to you – the members, corporate and individual, for your continued support in helping BLS remain as one of the leading local Law Societies in the country.
In closing, I would like to explain the bike theme and the large motorcycle you will have seen when you arrived this evening, which belongs to my chosen charity for this year, the Freewheelers, AKA “Bloodbikes”.
Run entirely by volunteers, this national charity is known as “the unseen 999 service”. It’s a service from which any of us could and may already have benefited without even knowing it.
Tonight is an opportunity for us all to help the bloodbikes with their important work and to tell you more, I am very pleased to introduce to you in a moment, Mr Richard Reeves, the Fundraising manager for this region’s Bloodbikes.
From me, that’s a wrap. It’s been an honour.