Friday, March 31, 2006

Socio-Legal Studies Annual Meeting (Part Two)

It's over. Two and a half days of talking. Talking is one of the most exhausting activities known to man. I came to understand that fully when I participated in a three-way discussion on property versus contract and which effectively rules today. I was arguing for contract. This discussion then segued into another discussion on Luhmann and systems theory. I was arguing against that and my ethnographic experience reinforces my approach. The discussion was finally halted when we realised it was 3am (and we started at 11pm) and we were due into the conference at 9am! I managed four hours sleep just.

The legal profession stream finished with another good two sessions. Cyrus Tata and Frank Stephen talked about the effects of changes in the criminal legal aid payment system on solicitors who practised in criminal defence. Instead of letting solicitors bill on time, fixed payments were introduced. Their study was fascinating because it combined sophisticated economic statistical analysis with qualitative interview material. Both types recorded the same effects. Solicitors do respond to economic incentives but they only tell part of the story. A key issue was that the legal system itself contained a set of obstacles (eg, no legal aid for guilty pleas) that militated against efficiency and savings. The report is waiting for approval from the Scottish Executive before publication, but it will make for very interesting reading.

The final session was also Scottish in flavour and dealt with gender differences in the Scottish legal profession and the potential effects of the Clementi changes on the profession. Fiona Westwood discussed the possibilities for Legal Disciplinary Practices, which would broaden the intellectual and skill bases of firms and enable them to introduce more management capabilities into firms. Her research begins with the argument that partnership itself is an inhibition to the introduction of more modern approaches to business, especially growth. Partnership prevents effective long-term planning. For example, a senior partner may be more concerned about paying money into his pension plan than considering the financing of another office in a different town or country. Despite the talk of business, she emphasised that whatever moves are made there have to be a set of professional values at the core of the practice. And in some ways the interesting question is then: what elements combine to create those values?

Nick McKerrill, and Moira MacMillan reported that, as we might imagine there are significant differences between men and women. Men are paid more, there are more male partners and so on. The difficult part is explaining how it is that with the large numbers of women entering the profession, so few, relatively, make it through to the higher echelons of the profession. Family life and raising children do not seem to explain the situation fully.

I have come away from the meeting both exhausted and refreshed. Going to these kinds of meetings is partly about getting fresh stimulus and new ideas. These are already percolating around my brain.

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