Interview with I. Stephanie Boyce – Immediate Past President, The Law Society of England & Wales
Q: Stephanie, you have often spoken of your ‘interesting and unconventional’ route to becoming a lawyer. Please tell us about it. Has it shaped the kind of lawyer and leader you are today? If so, how?
A: Most certainly, my unconventional route has shaped the lawyer I am today.
I failed one of my earliest selective exams, the 11 plus, and a year or so later we emigrated to the United States. Even though I lived in the United States for the next six years, I always knew I would return to the United Kingdom to study law. So, in 1991, the day or so after finishing high school, I returned to the UK – and so began my legal career.
It was then I stumbled on my first barrier: I discovered that my US qualifications were not recognised in the UK at that time. However, thanks to the access to qualification route, I was able to enrol at the London Guildhall University in 1996, and I later graduated with an LLB (Hons) in Politics. After that, I progressed to the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law in Guildford in 1999.
Securing a training contract was not an easy task. However, thanks to the steadfast encouragement of my father, I secured a placement with a local Aylesbury firm, Horwood & James LLP, qualifying as a solicitor in 2002.
Q: The Law Society was formed over 200 years ago and in March 2021 you became the first Black, person of colour President of the Law Society. In the same year, the Legal Services Board concluded in a report that a ‘step change’ was needed to make entry into law easier. It cited that the profession had a persistent lack of diversity in hiring, retention and career progression, with a preference for ‘elite’ educational institutions which hindered those from disadvantaged backgrounds. What steps do you think can be taken to ensure that you are not both the first and last Black President?
A: As President of the Law Society, I made it my mission to leave the profession more diverse and inclusive than the one I entered. It still remains my mission. I passionately believe that solicitors need to reflect the society we serve. Opportunities must exist for everyone regardless of their background.
The makeup of the solicitor profession in England and Wales has changed over the past three decades. Only 709 solicitors were Black, Asian or minority ethnic in 1990. The latest statistics from the solicitor profession show that 18 per cent of the profession identify themselves as Black, Asian or minority ethnic but just 90 of more than 13,000 partners at law firms with 10 or more partners in England and Wales are Black. More must be done to remove the barriers to progression that has enabled this state of affairs.
A truly diverse and inclusive workforce is fundamental to the future of our profession. There is a wide body of evidence which shows that more diverse businesses are more successful businesses; a diverse team working in an inclusive culture is more adept at solving complex problems than a homogenous one. There is also a moral imperative for the legal sector to uphold the rule of law and to reflect the diverse communities it serves if there is to be continued public confidence in the profession.
Q: Equally, you are only the second in-house solicitor in almost 50 years to become Law Society President. How have you seen the role of in-house counsel evolve over the years and how should it evolve?
A: Absolutely. The first in-house solicitor to become president was Desmond Heap in 1972, a planning solicitor from the City of London.
The role of in-house counsel has grown to 25 per cent of total solicitors, the fastest growing part of the profession. Statistics tell us that if you happen to be female and from a diverse background, you are more likely to go and work in-house, as I did. I wanted the flexibility, the variety of work and being closer to the decision making.
The role of in-house counsel has evolved: the role of general counsel has become one of the most influential roles. General counsel are the ones driving change faster around equality and diversity and inclusion. General counsel have really used their voice and influence to make a difference and to shape the legal horizons of the future.
Q: You once said that a piece of advice that has served you well throughout your own career is: ‘Every door is open if you PUSH – Persevere Until Something Happens’. Has there been a point in your tenure where this advice has been particularly helpful?
A: Absolutely, the four attempts it took me to become president!
Q: Lawyers relying on legal aid to represent defendants have seen their incomes squeezed after numbers of Crown Court trials fell due to the pandemic. What, if anything, can be done to ensure that lawyers relying on legal aid can remain within the profession?
A: The UK Government must commit to properly fund legal aid and accept and adopt all of the recommendations from the independent review of criminal legal aid undertaken by Sir Christopher Bellamy as he was then, who made it clear in the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid that an immediate 15 per cent injection of funding was the bare minimum needed to keep the beleaguered criminal justice system functioning and ensure access to justice for victims and defendants.
Despite the parlous state of the solicitor profession as described by Sir Christopher, the Government proposals in response to the consultation will fall substantially short of what they first appeared to be.
Q: One of the aims of the Law Society is to be a sounding board for law reform. What have been some of your key priorities for law reform?
A: The Law Society has done a tremendous job over the last few years, and I know that members have appreciated the leadership that we have shown as an organisation. It has been a privilege to witness the fortitude, dedication and determination of the staff and volunteers at the Law Society, and I am so proud of what we achieved together.
From the outset, I knew what I wanted to achieve as President. Of course, there were my specific presidential commitments, such as increasing access to justice, upholding the rule of law, and increasing diversity within the profession. But my one overarching aim was to use my leadership position to get out there and tell people about the Law Society – who we are, what we do, what we advocate. I wanted the Law Society to be noticed, and to be heard. I promised the Law Society many things but above all two things to be visible and to take the Law Society to places it has never been. I wanted to make a difference.
The Law Society has campaigned and worked on a number of initiatives such as legal aid, access to justice, human rights and the Bill of Rights, Judicial Review, Rwanda deportations and so many more issues. The Law Society also continues to raise public awareness around the many issues that affect individual rights working with other campaigning organisations, ministers, parliamentarians and other professional and regulatory bodies. We have had a number of wins, but work remains to ensure there is greater awareness by the public of its work and the issues that continue to affect citizens’ rights, their ability to access justice and the profession’s ability to practise.
Q: How do you see litigation practice, in particular, evolving in the years to come and how do you think lawyers should equip themselves for change?
A: Technology is redefining the legal field and we as practitioners have to equip and prepare ourselves for the changing landscape and the way we work with and keep pace with technology.
Additionally, there is a greater emphasis on dispute resolution and a push for online justice as governments seek to transform our justice system. However, online justice is not without its concerns around access to justice, due process, and the ability of vulnerable individuals and those who are digitally excluded to interact with the legal system in this way.
England and Wales is a leading global centre for legal services and renowned for its commercial compatibility. The benefits of the jurisdiction, the strength of our courts and judicial system, our world class legal profession and our highly respected arbitration system all make this a jurisdiction of choice to come to and litigate. These benefits will continue for years to come and we must ensure that we are agile enough to respond to these benefits in a meaningful way. As they evolve, we too must evolve.
Q: One of the mandates of the Law Society President is to promote England and Wales as the jurisdiction of choice. Post Brexit, what do you think makes England and Wales the jurisdiction of choice?
A: England and Wales is an open and welcome jurisdiction, renowned for the fairness of our courts, the independence of the judiciary and the quality of our judgments. We are a highly reliable global jurisdiction of choice for many international deals.
The laws of England and Wales also have numerous benefits and are a popular choice for international business because it is flexible, predictable and stable.
Q: Following the Black Lives Matter movement diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias garnered heightened attention. We saw large law firms taking their diversity pledges a step further by considering diversity targets for promotions and career progression. To quote Lady Hale: ‘Although the battleground has shifted the battle is not yet won.’ What meaningful steps can be taken to ensure that our legal institutions are representative of the society they serve?
A: There is often a leap to action on diversity and inclusion – a sense of urgency to ‘do something’, with myriad advice, schemes and checklists available. This can lead to activity that is reactive to immediate pressures, short lived or not properly resourced or recognised. This risks a lot of effort being put into initiatives that do not ultimately improve diversity or boost inclusion.
It is therefore important to adopt a targeted approach to the needs of one’s particular organisation.
Last year, the Law Society launched a diversity and inclusion framework to serve as a roadmap for workplaces to develop and deliver a strategic approach to diversity and inclusion. The framework helps workplaces drive change by supplying a proactive three-step action plan that will help members develop and deliver a strategy that creates lasting change.
It has simple steps to follow, tangible actions to take and regular checkpoints to help workplaces monitor their progress. Whilst initially aimed at large and medium sized firms, it outlines strategic principles that will be applicable no matter the size of the firm, in-house team or organisation. It will help workplaces to identify their own rationale for acting, set goals based on evidence from their organisation and ensure the change they are seeking lasts.
The framework helps to:
• establish purpose;
• develop a plan; and
• ensure performance
The framework supports workplaces in taking a strategic and systematic approach to diversity and inclusion activity to ensure that the change they are seeking to make is sustainable. The framework is a roadmap for action that allows workplaces to create lasting change where everyone feels valued, respected, and safe.
Q: What are you most proud of and what would you like to be your legacy?
I achieved so many things whilst in office including a number of wins around judicial review, solicitors’ indemnity fund, the introduction of the Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination (SQE). I am most proud of my work in ensuring a genuinely more accessible legal profession and in raising awareness of the law amongst members of the public.