Lawyer of the Month: Sheila Webster

Lawyer of the Month: Sheila Webster

Sheila Webster

Sheila Webster is in chipper mood when we catch up on Teams. Though she recently broke her shoulder tripping over a desk in the office, she has just had her sling removed and, while she is still in some pain and reliant on her husband – Themis Advocates KC Andrew Webster – for lifts, she feels like she has got some of her freedom back.

Webster, who is head of disputes at Edinburgh practice Davidson Chalmers Stewart, was appointed Law Society of Scotland president last month. Having served on the Law Society Council since 2017, she has long had an interest in improving the lot of lawyers in Scotland and, as just the sixth woman to hold the presidency in the organisation’s 74-year history, plans to focus much of her attention on the persistent issue of female representation in the profession.

“There’s a perception that entrance at the bottom level is good and we do have more than 50 per cent females entering the profession at university level but what is becoming more and more of an issue is progression at the senior end of the profession,” she says.

“There’s a marked fall-off at the top end of the profession and I don’t think I could be the sixth female president and not want to see that change. What is it that makes women want to drop out of the profession mid-career? There is at times the suggestion that it’s all about having kids, but I don’t agree with that – I think there’s more to it than that. I want to see if we can identify what the causes are and what we can do to fix it. I think change is coming. It’s slow – probably slower than we would all like – but it’s interesting when you look around that the president of the Law Society of England and Wales is a woman [Lubna Shuja] and the Irish Law Society is headed by a woman [Maura Derivan]. Against that background it seems to me that now is a good time to be looking at this.”

Webster herself is living proof of how important it is to see women in such positions, noting that she would never have put herself forward for a Council role in the first place or the vice-presidency and presidency afterwards if she hadn’t seen Christine McLintock, who was president from 2015 to 2016, or Eilidh Wiseman, who held the role from 2016 to 2017, blaze a trail before her. Like Webster they had both been employed in commercial practices – McLintock with McGrigors then Pinsent Masons and Wiseman with Dundas & Wilson – and seeing them take on officer bearer roles inspired her to do the same.

“For a long time some of the large firms weren’t seen as being hugely involved in the Law Society but I was influenced and inspired by Eilidh Wiseman and Christine McLintock,” Webster says. “They both came from big firms, and they are both women, and I saw them stand for the presidency and that probably was the factor that inspired me most to say I can be in the Law Society and I can make a difference.”

As the first person in her family to go to university, Webster is also keen to ensure that people from all backgrounds – not just those with an existing connection to the legal profession – have an opportunity to do the same and she plans to look at how the Lawscot Foundation can be developed. Set up by the society in 2016, the foundation provides bursaries to support academically talented students from less-advantaged backgrounds through their legal education journey.

“I’m really interested in diversity and inclusion and one of the best things the Law Society has done in recent years is the Lawcot Foundation,” she says. “I’ve had quite a lot of contact with some of the early students who were accepted onto the programme and it’s incredible to see how much we’ve been able to help and support them to the stage they are now in training contracts. I really, really want to see that extended as much as we can. There were some figures a couple of years that said if every lawyer in Scotland gave £10 a year there’s a huge difference that could be made. The profession does need to reflect those we serve and that only happens if we are more inclusive.”

Other issues that are likely to come across Webster’s desk during her year in office are longstanding ones such as the funding of legal aid and revamp of how the legal sector is regulated as well as newer ones such as proposals outlined in the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill. While the Law Society has long argued for better funding for legal aid practitioners as well as improvements to how complaints are handled, in recent weeks its members have become involved in protesting about plans published in the bill to pilot juryless trials in sexual offences cases. Solicitors across the country have said they will boycott the scheme, with Webster noting that the society aims to work closely with the Scottish government to air its members’ concerns as the bill makes its way through Holyrood.

“The criminal justice reform proposals are hot news at the moment, that’s for sure,” she says. “Together with our criminal law committee we’ve expressed some concerns about what’s proposed. Juryless trials is a difficult point. The bar associations in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen are already saying they are not going to co-operate so there’s some work to be done on that. That’s on my desk and will have to be dealt with.

“The legal aid fees issue will remain. We have some new regulations which increased fees from the end of April but those who practise criminal legal aid say this is not over because we don’t have a mechanism to look at regular reviews. The principle is that we should have a mechanism where we have more regular and more controlled reviews rather than every so often having a big discussion. That is under way but it’s still quite a way from being agreed.

“Inevitably, given the publication of the Regulation of Legal Services (Scotland) Bill, that will form a big part of my time. I’m 100 per cent behind Murray Etherington about the disappointment that we feel about some aspects of the bill. There are undoubtedly good things in the proposals that are in the bill and it has to be remembered that the Roberton Review that preceded the bill came about because the Law Society wanted reform. I don’t think there’s any dispute that the complaints side needs improvement, both for the Law Society but – more importantly – for consumers. But there are some things we’ll be arguing that still need to go in. We very much want to work with the Scottish government to achieve a result that works for everyone.”

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