THE YEAR ahead is likely to be marked by a growing polarisation of the legal profession in Scotland.

At one end, large commercial and international firms are gearing up to take advantage of the opportunities events such as Brexit will present, while at the other end practices that rely on legal aid and other sources of funding are bracing themselves for yet another difficult year.

While the growing use of technology is influencing how law firms operate, the fact that clients are also grappling with how to make their own technologies comply with impending data protection legislation means there is plenty of high-level advisory work to be had.

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As Morton Fraser chairman Maggie Moodie said, a major challenge her firm is facing this year is how to “balance the increasing expectations clients have to adopt innovative technology with their understandable sensitivity to data security needs”.

“Given GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] compliance is on the horizon in May this challenge will only intensify,” she added.

For Richard Masters, Scotland and Northern Ireland chairman at Pinsent Masons, 2018 will be the year that law firms are finally asked to come up with solutions to the business problems posed by Brexit, as the details of the deal the UK is likely to strike start to become clear.

“Many of the organisations we advise have already adjusted their strategies to adapt to change,” he said. “We’ll increasingly see those strategic shifts having a greater impact on general counsel as their boards ask them to engage with the operational consequences of those changes, for instance in people, commercial contracts, data and other areas.”

While Mr Masters believes the trend for in-house lawyers seeking to extract better value from their legal spend will continue in the year ahead, he said firms that have managed to hang onto the dwindling number of panel positions will be beneficiaries of that.

“General counsel and procurement teams will ask harder questions of their law firm advisers in respect of cyber security and gender diversity, particularly after gender pay gap reporting kicks in with regards to the latter,” he said.

At the same time, according to Graeme McWilliams, a legal counsel at Standard Life Aberdeen and convenor of the Law Society of Scotland’s in-house lawyers committee, “there is a lot for in-house lawyers to look forward to this year”.

“Accounting for almost 30 per cent of the Scottish profession they will be kept busy with the continuing pace of regulatory change,” he said. “As the demands of Brexit and GDPR increase, the benefits of having an in-house legal resource firmly embedded within the fabric of an organisation, knowing both the work and the law, are more important than ever.”

Away from the business sphere, however, 2018 is shaping up to be a difficult one for individuals looking to procure legal services.

Mike Dailly, solicitor advocate at Govan Law Centre, noted that there are a number of areas where people could bring legal challenges in the year ahead.

“We have a new Housing and Property Chamber for private sector evictions and I foresee legal challenges to the decisions of this new tribunal as it beds in and applies poorly conceived legislation,” he said.

“Cumulative cuts to public funding for local government are now manifesting in more extreme forms. Severely disabled people who have relied on 24/7 care packages for many years are now having their care needs reassessed with care workers being replaced in the evening with call buttons.

“This is terrifying for severely disabled people, many of whom are unable to move without assistance, and I predict a series of legal challenges here. There may also be challenges to the practice of paying care workers £3 per hour for overnight care.”

However, with free legal advice centres having to fight harder to secure funding while legal aid budgets are coming under continued pressure, there are concerns that many people who have been disadvantaged by cuts will be unable to assert their rights through legal action.

According to human rights and criminal defence lawyer Aamer Anwar funding cuts are leading to the “creation of a two-tier justice system” where “the poorest and most vulnerable are no longer guaranteed the right to a defence or legal advice”.

“Over the last decade we have witnessed the slow decimation of our legal aid system,” he said. “Increasingly the courts rely upon the goodwill of lawyers who no longer expect to be paid for much of the work they do.

“The demoralisation and the impact of real-term cuts is being felt right across the board with a justice system in crisis whilst those at the top blindly repeat the mantra that everything is fine.

“Legal aid is vital in upholding the rule of law and holding the state to account but the people are regularly denied justice simply because they cannot afford it and sadly things will get a lot worse.”

For Gillian Baker, a consultant at high street firm Baker Gostelow Law, the biggest challenge now facing lawyers at the small end of the profession is how to ensure everyone who needs to access justice can do so.

“This needs to be the year when we, as high street solicitors, take a leading role to re-establish the link between services and quality which has been eroded over the last decade of budget slashing,” she said. “We must take a leading role in unapologetically providing quality legal services and ensuring access to civil justice, which enriches our communities.”