Diet of Admission 

7 June 2016


It is long established that the Keeper of the Signet is separate from, and does not take part in, the domestic affairs of the WS Society. That is for very good reason and I am not, of course, a Writer to the Signet. My remarks conclude this diet of admission and shortly I will take my leave before the Writers to the Signet present begin their annual general meeting.    

The WS Society has evolved over the centuries. It is a great pleasure to me that, in spite of the many changes since it was formed, the Society has continued to flourish. I am delighted to see so many new people being admitted as Writers to the Signet this evening. It is a great boost and a sign that the Society and its importance are understood. As many of you will know, I had the good fortune to hold high legal office in England and I can think of many occasions when Writers to the Signet were referred to as a very special brand of lawyers indeed. I agree.

The Society has a long history and in that respect one of the things that can happen to people in old age is that they may lose interest in change and in moving on. But the WS Society has demonstrated an extraordinary facility over the centuries to meet new challenges. Of particular importance is the Signet Library building. The Faculty of Advocates were involved initially and this upper library was intended for them. As many of you will know, and I speak from experience, the Faculty of Advocates is not always very business-like! Highly skilled at legal argument and advocacy, yes, but business-like, well, that’s more difficult. The Faculty seemed not up to the challenge of managing this part of the building. It was the WS Society that stepped in to acquire the upper library and reconfigured the entrance and staircase to create the building as it is today with a single main entrance and lower and upper library spaces. And what a building it is under the care of the WS Society.  

However, one problem has been that the building, although located in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, on the Royal Mile and next to St Giles’ Cathedral, was not well known to the citizens of Edinburgh, still less to the many visitors to the city. It is an amazing and beautiful building. And it is a great achievement of the WS Society today to have opened up the building to the public and to have done so whilst preserving its dignity and character and without detriment to the facilities of the WS Society as a legal institution.  This is a great and important change in the affairs of the WS Society. It is a development that I understand is already assisting the Society’s finances and will do so in the future. It is wonderful for the building, such a jewel, to be open in this way. Many people who have come here have spoken to me and told me how impressed they have been. Some have even found out as a result of their visit that I hold the office of Keeper of the Signet!

The WS Society makes a great contribution towards the maintaining high standards in the Scottish legal profession. One of the issues that I believe is a most important matter for today’s lawyers is the increase in specialisation. I remember when I went to England I was able to say that I had experience of cases in every specialism. Today we have been overtaken by specialisation and it is now impossible for a lawyer to do everything. I am not sure this is always a good thing. It may mean that legal advice and argument becomes less principled. Some people suggest that increasing specialisation only benefits those with an interest in there being special rules in particular fields.

Be that as it may, I wish all of you the very best in your careers.