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Dame Sue Carr appointed the Lord Chief Justice, slowdown in legal tech, Squires hits diversity targets, and more

Dame Sue Carr sitting at a desk. She is wearing a green blouse and a black jacket. Behind her are shelves of law books.

A new milestone in legal history: the judiciary has its first ever female Lord Chief Justice

It’s a development so unprecedented that it has to be our lead story this week: for 755 years, only lords, and no ladies, have held the position of Chief Justice of England and Wales – until now.

For the past week or so, the legal press and the broadsheets have been busily musing over which of the two women to make up the final shortlist of candidates to replace the outgoing Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, would be appointed as the head of the English and Welsh judiciary.

Either Dame Victoria Sharp, 67, a senior judge and president of the King’s Bench Division, or Dame Sue Carr, 58, an appeal court judge, would be the first woman to hold the title since it was first created in 1268 during the reign of Henry III.

And yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister’s Office revealed the name of the winning candidate: Dame Carr has been approved by the King as the country’s new Chief Justice.

Her appointment comes in spite of the fact that The Times had reported earlier this week that Dame Sharp, the twin sister of recently departed BBC chairman Richard Sharp, was apparently the favourite among legal insiders.

The same article reported that Dame Sharp has a reputation as a grafter, working from 7 am to 9 pm on weekdays and weekends. And when bestowing on her an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Bristol in 2014, Professor David Clarke stated that “She was convinced that if she had not dedicated herself to her job as she did by rejecting any leave on the birth of any of her children, she would have been significantly disadvantaged; as she puts it, if you were not there in chambers, you did not receive briefs and you had no job.”

Carr’s appointment marks another significant and welcome milestone in the too-short history of women in the law – we must remember the shocking fact that women were only admitted to practise law for the first time in 1919. As important projects such as Dana Denis-Smith‘s Next 100 Years help to highlight, there are still glass ceilings and unconscious biases to be shattered out there.

A slowdown in legal tech uptake?

Given the impact of the pandemic and the sea change it has wrought in the way we all work, you could be forgiven for assuming that ever more law firms have been embracing innovative legal tech in recent years. But according to new research, the opposite is in fact true.

A recent study commissioned by the Legal Services Board (LSB) has shown that law firms’ investment in new technology has slowed down over the past five years, and that many practices have yet to embrace the benefits of offering online services.

The research – which was in part based on interviews with 1,310 legal services providers of varying sizes, including 736 firms and 109 chambers – found that a mere 21% of firms in England and Wales had developed new or improved digital services in the past three years. This is a 7% drop from 28% in 2018, the last time the profession was surveyed.

According to the study, only one-third of firms offer online services, and 50% do not make regular use of social media. At present, 15% use digital comparison tools and an additional 13% plan to use them.

Back in 2018, 70% of firms believed that technology made it cheaper to deliver legal services. This figure has now dropped to less than half (49%), though six out of ten firms agreed that clients expect them to use technology to provide legal services.

Although most of the firms surveyed currently make use of video-conferencing technology, there was less enthusiasm for other tech such as electronic signatures, ID checking tools, live chat or virtual assistants and custom-built apps. The two main reasons cited for this hesitancy are the risks associated with using unproven technology, and the lack of in-house IT expertise.

In their report, the researchers stated that, “Taken as a whole, these results indicate a step change rather than revolution in the use of innovation and technology to develop and deliver legal services. The pandemic and its associated restrictions has been a major, though not the only, driver. While the level of service development has decreased slightly from 2018, it is still reported by a sizeable proportion of firms”.

While these results are certainly interesting, I don’t think they reflect any real reluctance on the part of most UK law firms to embrace technology, as long as there is a clear and positive cost-benefit relationship. There will always be pioneers in the adoption of new tech, as we have seen in recent months since the much-covered adoption of ChatGPT.

I also feel that the figures aren’t necessarily a reflection of any real slowdown in the interest firms have in tech – a large proportion of legal practices will be focused on leveraging their earlier tech spend to maximum effect. In order to be effective, tech doesn’t always have to be shiny and new; it just needs to work well and serve the purposes it was purchased for in the first place.

Simmons & Simmons is going green

Simmons & Simmons (Simmons) has been much in the news of late. For one, the firm was mentioned briefly in the FT’s recent expose of sexual abuse and harrassment allegations against hedge-fund titan Crispin Odey, who has been forced to leave Odey Asset Management in the wake of the scandal – Simmons is the company’s longstanding external legal advisor and conducted an internal investigation into previous allegations against Odey in 2021.

On a much more positive note, the firm has also been receiving coverage after it announced that it planned to significantly reduce its global emissions by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement. The announcement included near-term, science-based emission-reduction targets, which Simmons aims to achieve through a raft of measures that include reducing business travel emissions by 60%, transitioning to 100% renewable electricity in its offices and reducing emissions from transportation and distribution services used by 50%.

In its press release, Simmons states that the near-term emission-reduction targets “aim to rapidly and significantly reduce its global carbon emissions by the end of the decade”, and that “the new firmwide targets form part of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) – a global partnership involving the UN Global Compact, CDP, World Resources Institute and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)”.

This green strategy forms part of the firm’s wider global business plan, and may be read by some as a reactive move following Osborne Clarke’s announcement earlier this month that it is planning to reach net-zero emissions by 2040. TLT, Pinsent Masons and Eversheds Sutherland have also committed to the SBTi. It therefore seems safe to say that going green in this way is set to become all the rage in the wider industry, as other firms follow suit. And a good thing that is, too.

Squires hits its partnership diversity targets early

Full-service global law firm Squire Patton Boggs has got well ahead of the curve by achieving its 2026 diversity targets three years ahead of schedule.

When the firm published its five-year plan to improve diversity and inclusion back in 2021, the aim was to increase its percentage of female partners to 25% by 2026. Squires has already achieved this figure and now wants to ensure that 37% of its partners are female by 2029.

The firm has also hit its ethnic minority target for 2023, bringing its number of ethnic minority partners up to 16% across the firm. Squires now wants to raise this figure to 19% by 2026, and then to 22% by 2029.

So what has the firm been doing differently? In addition to working with the Reignite Academy, Aspiring Solicitors and the Black Solicitors Network to broaden the available talent pool, Squires has also expanded its apprenticeship scheme and introduced a suite of family-friendly policies, paid leave for registered carers and an increase in paid compassionate leave and sickness pay.

More of this, please.

Lawyers go walkabout for charity

This past Tuesday, the streets and parks of our nation’s capital were veritably awash with lawyers as thousands of legal professionals took part in the big 2023 London Legal Walk.

A thousand teams from law firms both big and small enjoyed the late spring sunshine and walked along the event’s two main routes, the Parks Route or the River Route, which led them through the heart of London. At the end of their walk, the 16,000 participants got to enjoy street food and party vibes at the designated finishing point.

The hugely popular charitable event, which is organised by the London Legal Support Trust and whose sponsors include the Law Society and LexisNexis, helps raise money to provide access to legal advice. It is also a great opportunity for law-firm teams to bond as they chat and relax while walking one of the 10K routes.

I’ve been enjoying all the pictures and stories posted by participants on LinkedIn this week: lots of smiling faces, great shots of London landmarks and a real sense of the carnival atmosphere along the route. Well done to everyone who took part!

In other news

Here are some of the other stories from the world of legal and beyond that caught my eye this week:

Aspiring silks: what motivates the next generation of barristers?

Legal Cheek has conducted an interesting survey on the motivations and concerns of aspiring barristers. These include money, career-building and burnout.

One of the most interesting findings is the degree to which self-employment both appeals to and scares those contemplating a career as a silk.

For a more in-depth look at this story, please see here.

Government introduces post-GCSE course for legal services

The range of subjects available to students taking T-Levels, a new post-GCSE vocational qualification brought in by the Government three years ago, is to be expanded to include legal services for the first time this autumn.

Created by the Department for Education to provide additional access routes into the world of work, T-Levels are set to become as popular among students post-GCSE as apprenticeships and A-Levels. For more on this story, please see this story in the Law Gazette.

Retired barrister fined £20k for making snoring noises

A judge presiding at the employment tribunal has fined a claimant and her lawyer £20,000 for “frankly the most outrageous conduct” after her legal representative – one Mr G Blakey, a retired barrister – apparently made a snoring sound during the cross-examination of a witness.

During the proceedings, which sound like they descended into the realm of the shambolic at times, the judge had to remind Blakey eight times that he was asking leading questions – questions which the judge also described as “‘extremely long, such that the witness and the tribunal lost track of the question completely before it could be answered”.

Read the full story in either The Times or the Law Gazette.

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