Lawyer of the Month: Stuart Munro
Despite having started studying law at the tender age of 16, Stuart Munro, managing director of Livingstone Brown, didn’t have a burning desire to join the profession in his formative years. Instead, he describes it as something he “fell into”. At his local school he was expected to do well in his exams and the advice from his guidance teacher was to get into “law or medicine, son”. Mr Munro went for the former option and hasn’t looked back. It was clearly the right decision given the fact he has remained at the same law firm in Glasgow since he started his traineeship in 1993, straight from university.
Looking back, Mr Munro says that he was probably too young when he went to the University of Strathclyde in 1991. “I didn’t really know what being a lawyer involved at that point. I can’t claim there were any voices in my head telling me that I had some kind of great calling,” he explains, “What changed it for me was getting a part-time job with Livingstone Brown at the end of my second year at university. It came about through a chance conversation with a friend’s dad who was a sergeant in the Glasgow Sheriff Court back in the days when the police did all the security there. He knew a chap called Gerry Brown who said I should get in touch about summer work and that’s what happened.”
He graduated and started his traineeship with Livingstone Brown in 1993 where he was thrown in at the deep end, which he loved. The firm is a mixed litigation practice and Mr Munro ended up specialising in criminal law, heading up the criminal litigation and inquiries practice unit. During his time with the firm he has led several high-profile cases and his big interest is white collar crime and associated litigation. He was involved in getting the admission from the Crown that it had maliciously prosecuted the former administrators of Rangers FC which led to a multi-million-pound settlement, as well as Crown Office reforms.
As always, it has been a busy time for Mr Munro and the firm, with no signs of a slowdown during the pandemic. He was named Managing Partner of the Year at the 2021 Scottish Legal Awards. “It was quite humbling and a real surprise,” he says. He believes the accolade came in response to what has been happening at the firm in the last few years – which he describes as “seismic changes” managed over a “difficult period” during Covid-19. This includes a restructuring of the business into practice area units, following a model used by many firms in London, with a focus on centres of excellence that have specialists giving clients the highest quality service. At the same time the business has invested in IT and moved towards a largely paperless environment. This process began before the pandemic, but was timely as Livingstone Brown had already started introducing such systems as remote access to client files. And the “cherry on the cake” was the move to new offices on West George Street in Glasgow city centre at the start of October from Carlton Place.
“We had been at Carlton Place forever. I started there, just along the road from the Sheriff Court,” he says. “It’s been like moving house. It’s a big wrench. At the same time it’s been very therapeutic. We recognised that staff wanted to be in better quality accommodation. There’s now a much more positive feeling among people coming into work in the morning.”
As well as managing this amount of change, Mr Munro, along with the rest of the profession, had to deal with the impact of the pandemic. The biggest effect in litigation was the freezing of courts for a period at the start of lockdown. For some time the courts were only dealing with emergency matters and trials were on hold. He says: “The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service responded tremendously in certain ways. The introduction of remote juries was really innovative. The positive use of technology allowed us to keep the show on the road as far as trials were concerned. Using the Webex video conferencing platform for things like Court of Session cases has undeniably allowed the justice system to remain open for business and not beset by interminable delays.”
While he adds that there are still some delays that represent a big challenge, particularly in the criminal courts, he believes that, overall, the system has done well to cope with the unforeseen and unprecedented impact of the pandemic.
And Mr Munro believes technology, such as Webex, could be used to tackle the issue around the length of time it can take to carry out and complete fatal accident inquiries (FAIs) in Scotland – something he sees as a major cause for concern. “There are certain types of litigation, FAIs being one of them, that always seem to come bottom of the queue in terms of priorities,” he explains. Now that the facility is available for online hearings, and when the courts are full of criminal trials, he says consideration should be given to using technology for other types of processes that aren’t being treated as high priorities, such as FAIs.
He adds: “The biggest concern with FAIs is the awful delay. It means you have families who feel they can’t move on from a terrible accident, or fatality. They have to wait years for this type of process. That’s not good for them or the public at large. The whole point of having FAIs is to try to learn from what has happened with a view to avoiding repetition in the future. There’s a real danger that doesn’t happen if the process takes years.”
Another issue that troubles Mr Munro, along with many of his peers, is legal aid. He is not alone in pointing to the concern about the sustainability of the current model. Although the Scottish government has recently committed to increases in legal aid fees, he says that is against a backdrop of them having been static for some time, and reducing over the last couple of decades in real terms. “This has created a real problem in legal aid in terms of provision and staffing,” he warns. “On the one hand you have money being directed towards the Crown Office and that means higher starting salaries in the public sector. Against that, in the private sector, you have static or reducing legal aid rates and increasing overheads. Firms aren’t in a position to compete with the salaries on offer in the public sector and that has an impact. It inevitably means fewer firms will do this kind of work and people will find it harder to get legal aid provision. This is the case even in the big cities and not just in rural areas. We’re going to be seeing real problems with access to justice. This is only going to continue and, if anything, accelerate.”
While nobody would welcome the pandemic, Mr Munro says that one change for the better is that it helped bring about the greater use of technology across the profession which he sees as an opportunity to be grasped. For him, it lets lawyers spend more time being lawyers and using their brains, rather than endlessly coping with administration. It has also improved communication between law firms, with courts and with clients who can have more immediate access to legal services, which he believes will help in terms of litigation.
But Brexit, he says, has had unwanted consequences. Before Brexit he describes a well-understood means of co-operation between Scotland, and the whole of the UK, and Europe in such areas as sharing of evidence and crime investigation. With the UK’s departure from the European Union such arrangements were undone. According to Mr Munro, this is of real concern because of the global and online nature of financial crime.
Mr Munro concludes: “One of the things you see after being in the profession for years is that everything changes. You can foresee some changes from a distance and others take you by surprise. The key thing is that firms must remain adaptive and responsive to change.”