The Margaret Taylor Interview: Amanda Millar on rising to the challenge of the new normal
When Amanda Millar put herself forward to become president of the Law Society of Scotland she wanted to make a difference to her profession during a time of considerable challenges. What she did not know back in the relative calm of 2018 was that by the time she took over from John Mulholland in June of this year the environment would have become far more challenging than anyone could ever have imagined.
Far from being daunted by the prospect of leading the profession at a time when constitutional, economic and public health emergencies prevail, Ms Millar remains philosophical, noting that she is simply going to have to work harder during her presidential year to ensure the profession’s interests are represented.
“When I stood for president I thought it was an opportunity to be able to give something back and to be able to represent the profession,” she says. “I’m passionate about the rule of law and the challenges to that. Even when I stood in 2018 I felt we were in particularly challenging and uncertain times and that as president I could be a strong advocate for the profession but also for the consumer. Things now are very challenging and I’ll continue to be [that advocate].”
Noting that the legal sector is “a fundamental pillar of civil society”, Ms Millar says her main focus as Law Society president is to ensure the profession remains robust and sustainable in the face of unprecedented economic and operational challenges. Part of that involves helping legal businesses stay viable in the wake of the coronavirus-induced upheaval. The Law Society is, for example, lobbying on behalf of its criminal membership over highly contentious plans from the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to potentially introduce Saturday hearings.
At the same time, however, Ms Millar is taking a longer-term view, focusing on issues that were fundamental to the profession’s sustainability before the pandemic hit and will remain so once a vaccine for COVID-19 has been found and the emergency has passed.
“I want a sustainable and viable legal profession that’s robust and well regulated and is a fundamental pillar of civil society,” she explains. “I believe that part of how we achieve that is by supporting people’s wellbeing and continuing to do the work we are doing on diversity and inclusion because that’s how we achieve long-term sustainability. It’s important that the legal profession reflects the society it serves.”
Diversity remains a problem for a profession that, at the senior end at least, continues to be dominated by middle class white men, though Ms Millar believes she has a unique role to play in encouraging people from different backgrounds to consider a career in law. As the fifth female president of the Law Society and the first as an out member of the LGBTQ+ community she is proof that you do not have to be male, pale or stale to make it in the law. That said, she admits to initially wearing her role-model status with some reluctance.
“I’d like to get to a position where my unique characteristics aren’t an issue, but part of the way to get there is to get over the hurdle of being the first to do something,” she says. “I’m in the situation of having to accept that I’m a role model. It’s something that I took to reasonably reluctantly. Scots generally try not to do too much navel-gazing – we all just want to do our day job and there’s a lot to be said for that.
“But we are in a reality where that’s not possible. You have to acknowledge that this is a profession that is a fundamental pillar of civil society and in order to stand up for that you have to be able to reflect that society and that means some of us have to put our hands up.
“This year I led the One Profession, Many Journeys campaign to highlight, particularly to young people, that the legal profession is for everybody – if you have the ability and the intellectual curiosity then this can be a job for you. If I didn’t stand out and stand up for and highlight the difference between me and perhaps others then the people who are like me would not see it is for them. It comes back to the whole scenario that for lots of people they need to be able to see it to be it. That’s how we improve diversity and get to the point of having a more diverse profession.”
While coronavirus has had a negative impact on the vast majority of the legal businesses the Law Society has responsibility for, it has also, paradoxically, made it easier for Ms Millar to get round them all to find out their concerns in the early part of her presidential year. That means that, rather than spending the entire 12 months finding out the issues then not having enough time to help resolve them, she has been able to spring into action much more quickly – something that would not have been possible if the pandemic had not forced everyone to look at new ways of working.
“From my perspective, it’s given me an opportunity to engage with members in a way that I probably wouldn’t have been able to and in a much shorter space of time because we’re using a huge amount of technology,” she explains.
“Quite often engagement across constituencies would take almost the entirety of a presidential term but I aim to have met them all by the end of October and we are fairly far down that road. That’s an opportunity that wouldn’t have been possible previously. I’ve been able to meet with colleagues across England and Wales, in the south of Scotland, in the Borders.
“That’s given an opportunity for members who perhaps wouldn’t have been able to travel to attend. That’s happening across the country. The upside of that is to get that level of engagement as early as possible in the year.”
Much of the what she has been hearing revolves around the impact court closures have had on criminal defence practices, though Ms Millar stresses that with 90 per cent of Scottish firms facing reduced turnover this year as a result of coronavirus, issues are being felt across the board. The knock-on effect of that is to bring employee wellbeing into sharper focus at a time when many people may be feeling isolated or unsupported after spending months working from home. Another consideration that is of concern to Law Society members is how to keep bringing fresh blood into the profession when economic considerations mean offering traineeships may not be viable.
Having herself entered the profession at a time when traineeships were hard to come by, Ms Millar knows how difficult it is for young people looking to get their first step on the career ladder at this particular time. That means she is keen to use her own experience to show that just because times are challenging it does not mean that those challenges will not bring opportunities.
“When I was at university in the mid-nineties, a bit like now, the financial circumstances weren’t great and there weren’t huge numbers of traineeships,” she says. “I went into teaching and did some lecturing then got a traineeship a bit further down the line.
“I was a court solicitor and ended up specialising fairly early on in mental health and adults with incapacity – I got a phone call from someone in a mental health hospital looking for assistance and my supervising partner said he was happy for me to do that and that he would support me.
“It was an area no one really knew much about but it was an opportunity for me to plough my own furrow. I’d always been interested in people and making sure people who didn’t have a voice were able to find their voice and have it represented for them.”
From that unplanned-for start, Ms Millar went on to become the first solicitor in Scotland accredited by the Law Society as a specialist in mental health and incapacity law. And, while she resigned from the partnership of Perth firm McCash and Hunter last year and is no longer in practice, she regularly serves as a curator at the Mental Health Tribunal of Scotland and as a safeguarder protecting the interests of adults with incapacity in the court system.
“I take an incapacitated person’s place to make sure their rights are represented,” she says. “That can be quite challenging but always incredibly positive. It can be really rewarding working with families when they have someone in the family that can’t make decisions for themselves.
“It’s also about ensuring that someone who has been assessed as incapacitated for certain things doesn’t have all their rights taken away. For me there’s an additional responsibility because often it’s people who are in distress or it’s people who aren’t able to give clear instructions.”
It is exactly the kind of advocacy Ms Millar believes the legal profession as a whole exists to deliver, particularly in the current environment. Ensuring it is able to continue delivering that in spite of the ongoing public health crisis will be how she measures her own success when her year-long tenure as Law Society president comes to an end.
“The legal profession’s job is to bring appropriate and robust challenge; our job is to represent and our job is to advocate and we need to be able to continue to do that without fear or favour,” she says.
“That responsibility needs to be maintained. If it is diminished because we are in emergency circumstances but then those circumstances become the norm, if we lose elements of our rights, we lose elements of our profession and the people who will suffer most from that are members of society as a whole.
“I’m concerned that with lots of things we fought very hard for – like diversity and inclusion and human rights – it becomes very easy in an emergency situation not to fight for any more.
“It’s easy to say you don’t have to fight for gender pay at the moment, for example, but if you lose sight of what were and remain fundamental pillars of society because of coronavirus that will be a loss. It would be dreadful if losing certain things by virtue of a health crisis meant that we ended up with another kind of crisis.”