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  • “The SBA confirms my professional standing as a lawyer

  • “No one should feel their life is in such a state that they can’t ask for help”

  • “You know that there are people there to support you and that you are not alone”

  • “I was not yet suicidal but I was close to breaking point

INTERVIEW: Robert Bourns

Law Society President, Robert Bourns, has been an SBA volunteer for many years and is currently its President.  He reflects on his volunteering for the charity and how it can best support the profession through challenging times

How did you become involved with SBA and how have you seen it change?

I first heard about SBA back in the 1980s, when I was Junior Honorary Secretary at Bristol Law Society. There were people around at that time who were fantastic advocates for the charity and, when one of them moved away from Bristol, there was a need for another volunteer Area Representative, so that’s when I became involved.

Some things about SBA are unchanging, for example, its level of dedication and the really appropriate levels of empathy and support offered to applicants and beneficiaries. In recent years, it seems to me there’s also been a stepping up to the mark, both trying to develop communications as well as more effort in trying to understand how need can be defined and criteria met.

 

Is there still a need for a charity like SBA?  How can it make an impact?

The population that SBA seeks to support certainly has continuing need.  Something I’ve become aware of through SBA and other roles is just how little some people have to live on. We can talk about the squeezed middle and being under pressure and so forth, but it’s hardly comparable.

It’s incredibly important for the beneficiary to know that they have someone they can talk to honestly, without having to worry, and to know that beyond that volunteer is an organisation that has interest, empathy and constancy of values.

I recall visiting one elderly beneficiary for SBA in Bath and their budget was so limited that, even with a senior citizens card, there was no way they could afford to visit a family member who lived miles away.  This was actually one of the things that SBA used to help fund and this beneficiary and I had all sorts of discussions about when these trips were going to take place.  This of course led in turn to discussions about the family.

We hear a lot about loneliness in our society.  The face-to-face contact with an SBA Area Representative can have a real impact, especially when they give time to it.  It’s not an “in-and-out” role. It’s incredibly important for the beneficiary to know that they have someone they can talk to honestly, without having to worry, and to know that beyond that volunteer is an organisation that has interest, empathy and constancy of values.

 

Solicitors find it very difficult to discuss personal financial hardship.  How can SBA encourage more people to reach out for help?

It’s important for SBA to emphasise that its involvement is very discreet. Talking about money or earnings in the profession is still quite a taboo – people don’t talk about what they earn or their broader financial resources.  In this profession there is huge disparity of earnings and not everyone wants to admit it one way or the other.  There are probably people working in large commercial firms earning a lot less than many people would think, particularly in the light of some of the remuneration structures that have been introduced.  Nevertheless, people still need to know where they can find help and that it’s not a problem to ask.

 

What do you foresee as challenges for the profession?

There are some absolutely fantastic case-book examples of people who’ve run their practice in a way that means that two or three years’ out from their chosen date of retirement, they can swing into somebody else’s practice and retire as planned.

However, there is a significant part of the population of the profession that I think is struggling towards and worrying about what to do about retirement.  Their practices have been overtaken by events and they consequently lose the room to manoeuvre.  They cannot retire in an orderly fashion if there are lease liabilities, issues with run-off insurance and no one willing to pick up the practice.

Talking about money or earnings in the profession is still quite a taboo – people don’t talk about what they earn or their broader financial resources.

An associated worry is how HR functions in our law firms recruit in accordance with what is regarded as being best practice but the result is something that looks to me as if it lacks the diversity one might hope for – and that diversity includes age.  Of course there can be skills gaps in some respects in, say, the use of IT and systems, but more experienced colleagues don’t seem to get the opportunity to make the balancing case.  It’s great to have every practice wanting to build succession and have lots of people coming through but that process has to be managed, costs money and takes time.  Someone who’s less interested or agitating for promotion, with years of experience in transactional client relationships, an ability to slot in and basically be confident in what they can bring to a firm is a very valuable resource.

 

And wider challenges?

The City is going to be challenged because of Brexit.  The timeline is such that people have to make a decision, in whatever sector they’re in, on the best information available to them at the time.  Some people are saying that if they feel they will need to have a more significant or restructured operation in the EU in order to ensure that their solicitors can practice in Europe, they will need 18 months to two years for implementation.  That means that decisions have to be made during the first half of 2017.  If we get large English firms with international practices or other institutional clients relocating significant elements of work, the impact on sentiment and the profession will be substantial.

If people can feel more positive and take pride in what they do, we will all be in a better position to face the necessary challenges.

There is constant challenge to Legal Aid practitioners.  Conveyancers and others are challenged all the time.  Clients challenge us – it’s not just regulators and politicians – and of course we challenge ourselves to do things differently, better, more cheaply.

But what unites? For me, the essence of being a professional is our independence from client interest. I’ve found this is what can unify people at every stage and level of their career.  It’s important to affirm that people do practise to the highest possible standards, they’re not greedy and they’re not ambulance chasers.  I think that if people can feel more positive and take pride in what they do, we will all be in a better position to face the necessary challenges.

There will always be differences by virtue of where we practise, the work we do, how much we’re paid and who our clients are, but we are all connected by shared enthusiasm for the law and recognition that we all play a part in administering it. As well as promoting the profession to the profession, the Law Society can work alongside the supporting organisations like SBA, LawCare and the Solicitors Assistance Scheme, to knit things together to understand what we each do, to best help and support those in need.

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