We’re open for Clearing: Visit our Clearing hub

blog

Alumna interview with President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I. Stephanie Boyce

I. Stephanie Boyce graduated from ULaw Guildford campus in 2000 and went on to be admitted to the Law Society in 2002. In July 2019 she took office as Deputy Vice-President, became Vice-President in 2020 and has recently become President. We caught up with Stephanie to discuss her time with us and what she wants to achieve during her time with the Law Society.

2020 interview as Deputy Vice-President

I studied for the Legal Practice Course at the College of Law (now The University of Law) in Guildford from 1999-2000. While there, I met two extraordinary members of faculty whom I am pleased to see are still teaching there. These two ladies, Sarah Grey and Melanie Williams, through their support and encouragement enabled me to focus on developing my legal mind. I remain grateful to them both for their unwavering support. I went on to train and qualify as a solicitor with Horwood and James solicitors.

I was inspired to study law because of my strong sense of justice and the injustices I saw unfolding around the world at that time. How the rule of law was/is experienced and perceived in practical, everyday situations and the impact it had on citizens and their right to self determination. I wanted to affect change and be part of that change.

Legal rights mean nothing, if people can’t exercise them. While time has moved on, we still see people unable to access justice both domestically and internationally. The Law Society’s public interest role places us as a guardian of the rule of law and as such we have a responsibility to ensure access to justice is available for all.

Studying at the College of Law was an obvious choice for me given its many notable alumni’s including my future training principal. At interview we had an instant connection exchanging stories of our time at Guildford. I met some remarkable people during my time at the College of Law, some of who I remain in contact with to this day and, made my time there unforgettable.

It is my absolute honour to have been elected from among my peers to lead our profession as President, as I will do in 2021/22. I bring a totally unique perspective to this role with my skills and experience. I do not and will not underestimate the significance of my election to this role. I will work to continue to raise awareness of the solicitor profession and the extraordinary work we do. I intend to be visible and collaborative, seeking to renew old acquaintances and forge new alliances. I am hugely grateful to my colleagues for making this all possible.

My election as DVP demonstrates a commitment to change and recognises our changing profession. I am an in-house solicitor, probably the first in-house solicitor to hold this post or at least the first to become an office holder in almost fifty years. The number of in-house solicitors is the fastest growing area of our profession and is predicted to reach 35 per cent of the profession by 2020. My election presents an excellent opportunity to raise the profile of this section of our membership.

I will work to strengthen our support for this community, ensuring that in-house solicitors see the Law Society as a convening body to support them in their work and careers. Above all I will use our collective voice to represent all our members wherever they practice.

My election is likely to impact how potential candidates are perceived in the future, which for me is one of the most valuable outcomes changing what people envision when they think of what leaders should look and sound like. It took me four attempts before I was successfully elected, along the way overcoming many obstacles, dreaming big and breaking down barriers.

My election has generated much interest not just from within the legal sector but other sectors and globally. I am committed to raising the profile of the Law Society and using our collaborative voice to make a positive difference.

I will make history by becoming the first ethnic minority President in 2021/22 in its 200- year history. As President I will lead our independent, strong and diverse legal profession with pride by emphasising the work of solicitors and their contribution to the economy, society and continuing to lobby government to provide a justice system that is equitable, accessible and affordable.

I am first generation British, the first in my family to go to university and the first to qualify as a solicitor. I do not come from a privileged background. I come from a background as a child of a single parent from an afro-Caribbean working class home; my grandparents and parents coming here from the Caribbean in search of faith, hope and greater opportunities. 

I was the first person in my family to stay in education after the age of 16. I went to a comprehensive state school having failed the selective exam. In my heart I nursed a dream of becoming a solicitor but time and time again, I was told because of my socio economical background I would never make it. It is amazing what you can achieve when you are determined and resilient.

So my advice is: dare to dream. Your dream, your vision, your goal belongs to you. I told myself time and time again that I was Deputy Vice President before it actually came to fruition; such was the belief I had in the power of my dream. Never allow yourself to be discouraged by difficulties or setbacks. Don’t ever allow anyone to take your dream away from you. Dare to be bold and beautiful, dare to make a positive difference and never ever give up.

The UK legal services market is the second largest in the world and the largest in the European Union. The jurisdiction of England and Wales is a strong jurisdiction, long regarded around the world and underpinned by a strong regulatory framework. I am absolutely privileged to have studied, trained and qualified in this jurisdiction. I believe education to be the start of a journey towards economic and social equality and studying law in this jurisdiction placed me in good stead

Looking forward, it is impossible not to feel an immense sense of surging excitement and nervousness about the opportunities and challenges that lie in front of the legal profession. From the regulatory upheaval stimulated by Brexit, changes to consumer behaviour, changes to the way solicitors will qualify, technological development and ongoing developments that will shape future changes in the sector and in our membership. I will work to engage with our members better, to promote the work the Law Society does at a national and local level so that we can best use our collective voice to represent all our members as one profession.

I am proud to be a solicitor, proud to be a member of the legal profession and to have proactively engaged with the Law Society over many years.  I want to continue to be part of a forward-looking body that advocates and promotes change, challenges and influences whatever the future may hold for our profession.

In addition the way solicitors will qualify in the future is set to change. The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is going to be a momentous change, the biggest shake-up in legal education in decades. One of the desired outcomes of the changes is to 'remove artificial and unjustifiable barriers' to qualification, although it is difficult to quantify if the SQE will result in increased costs of qualification.

There have been many highlights in my career, achieving my law degree, becoming admitted as a solicitor, achieving a Masters in Law from Kings College, London, becoming a Fellow of ICSA, but above all being elected by my peers as an office holder of the Law Society of England and Wales has been a remarkable achievement. I do not and will not underestimate the significance of my election to this role and the many lives that I might touch and inspire to join the legal profession and stay in law.

All my colleagues inspire me.  Each person I have read about or had the privilege to work with has inspired me in some way or the other.

I am also inspired by a life of service, it was Mahatma Gandhi who said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I can think of nothing more rewarding than sharing.

 

2021 update as Vice-President

Like many others, the last 12 months have been spent working from home; it has been a challenging time for us all. 

The legal profession has always been adaptable and capable of responding to changing circumstances and new challenges. We always find ways to innovate and ensure we continue to provide the highest quality services to our clients. 

I have now taken up the role of President of the Law Society of England and Wales and it has been a busy time engaging with members as well as internal and external stakeholders to ensure that our key messages and government requests are heard.

One of my objectives as President is to help the legal profession through this pandemic, manage the changes it is forcing on us and come out of it stronger. Different parts of the profession have been hit in different ways, and it is up to us at the Law Society to recognise these differences and help our members overcome them.

For example, our members in criminal litigation, and especially criminal legal aid practitioners, have taken a huge financial hit over the past year. The legal aid sector is in dire straits, and now is the time for the Government to take decisive action to secure its financial sustainability. Not just for now but for years to come.

In conveyancing, meanwhile, our challenge is to help keep the property market going while avoiding practitioners being swamped by demand at a time when capacity is low. That is why we have been calling for the Government to take action over the cliff edge presented by the end of the stamp duty land tax holiday on 31th March.

In those practice areas that are not under such an imminent threat, we want to help them adapt and come out of this pandemic stronger than before. We are promoting the adoption of new technology, which can help firms function efficiently wherever employees are working and ensure staff have the support and skills they need to use it effectively. We have a wealth of resources available for solicitors and firms to increase technological know-how, and we are pushing the Government to support technological adoption with financial incentives.

As well as this, I am continuing my work around diversity, inclusion and social mobility. I am committed to making a positive, practical, meaningful and lasting contribution to diversity and inclusion and socio-economic diversity at all levels within the profession.

One of the biggest challenges I will continue to face as President will be continuing to ensure I hear from all corners of our profession during these trying times. Remote working and social distancing has meant that I have not met and spoken with members in person as I normally would. As a result, it has been a challenge to ensure I remain plugged into the issues facing members and their practices. I know what the Law Society and I need to do to address these on their behalf.

I have been able to attend meetings and events and give speeches virtually. I now look to make the most of these opportunities to engage with members and work out what is needed to support them.

Since March 2020, our absolute focus has been on identifying our members' challenges and needs during these unprecedented times and taking action to address them. We set out four immediate priorities:

  • Looking after our members' safety;
  • Helping members keep their businesses going;
  • Helping members stay compliant; and
  • Protecting the rule of law.

Since then, we have produced a wide range of tools and guidance. We have engaged extensively with the Government to ensure our members receive the support they need. We have near-daily calls with the Ministry of Justice, weekly calls with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and ongoing conversations with the Treasury, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, HMRC and others. We also have regular contact with the Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Attorney General, as well as the Chair of the Justice Committee in Parliament. We are also in contact with senior BEIS Ministers and the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. We have been tirelessly making the case for more support for our members, and we will continue to do so.

On the personal side, my colleagues and I at the Law Society have had to adapt just like everyone else to remote working, and I believe we have done so very well. While our doors may no longer be open, we have managed to run our events virtually and provide members with learning resources and guidance when they need it. We continue meeting with and listening to our members and relaying their concerns to the powers that be.

As you can imagine, the pandemic has had a profound effect on how our justice system works, just as it has done on every other walk of life. For a start, social distancing measures have disrupted the way our courts usually work. As a result, we have seen the rapid rollout of videoconferencing technology to enable trials and hearings to go ahead. While some courts have adapted well to this change, others have faced more significant challenges.

On the one hand, the business and property courts, in particular, have flourished in this new normal. Complex judgments are still being delivered speedily, and businesses worldwide can still rely on the highest standard of justice from our courts.

On the other hand, criminal courts have not fared so well, and understandably so. The gravity of the cases tried in the magistrates' and crown courts do not lend themselves well to remote participation. As a result, we have seen the substantial backlog of cases grow further still, which means that people have to wait longer to get justice. The challenge now is to get this backlog under control without compromising on the quality of justice. That is why our preference, which we have communicated to the Government, is for more Nightingale Courts rather than extraordinary measures such as reducing jury sizes.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the impact the pandemic has had on solicitors' health and safety who have to attend court in person. We have pushed hard to ensure court buildings are as safe as possible for our members and those who need to attend in person, and we continue to do so.

Improving social mobility remains a priority of mine, and it also remains a priority of the Law Society generally. We are doing plenty of work to help support the most talented people achieve their legal profession goals regardless of their background.

Among the initiatives we have in place is the Diversity Access Scheme (DAS). This scholarship has been running annually at the Law Society for over 10 years. It aims to identify exceptional students who have a strong ambition to qualify as a solicitor but who, without support, will almost certainly not be able to realise that ambition. We've been walking the walk ourselves as well, and in 2017 we were able to offer a training contract with our legal team to a DAS alumnus.

We also run a social mobility ambassador programme to showcase accomplished members of the profession who have overcome socio-economic challenges to pursue their legal education and succeed in their careers. It provides role models for others who hope to follow in their footsteps.

At present, we are also working to ensure that the impending introduction of the SQE leads to more opportunities for those from less privileged backgrounds. In particular, we are working with the Government to secure a loan scheme for SQE applicants to ensure that price will not be a barrier to anyone hoping to qualify as a solicitor.

Discover more about studying the Legal Practice Course (LPC) at The University of Law.