UK Politics

What do lawyers think about Brexit?

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Media captionRobert Bourns on the main Brexit issues for the Law Society, which he heads

Anyone following the Brexit debate might think lawyers are the big winners from the UK's vote to leave the EU.

Their clients are desperate for advice as the UK attempts to disentangle itself from EU legislation, while the profession's leading lights clash in a historic legal challenge over Parliament's role in Brexit.

But is the profession really rubbing its hands in glee?

Robert Bourns, the president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said that while there is likely to be a short-term surge in demand, the long-term picture could be less rosy.

Companies are worried about whether their skilled workers will be able to stay in the UK post Brexit and how much regulation they will be subject to, he said.

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Image caption The government's approach to Brexit is currently being tested in the courts

"There is a great deal of uncertainty for law firms," Mr Bourns told the BBC.

"In the short to medium term, there is a lot of work. In the longer term, in the event that the standing of the City of London were to be diminished, there is concern as to how much will be available in this jurisdiction, where people should be locating, where they should be qualifying and so on."

The society is also warning that uncertainty at the outcome of the 23 June referendum could mean the position of England and Wales as the "global legal centre" comes under threat from rivals including New York and Singapore.

Mr Bourns said global businesses choose the legal system of England and Wales to resolve disputes but this status could be undermined as the UK plots its post-Brexit course.

"Competing jurisdictions are saying English and Welsh law is not as useful as it used to be and perhaps you'd like to use a different jurisdiction," he told the BBC.

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Image caption Mr Bourns said lawyers were worried about the City of London suffering from Brexit

The legal industry employs 370,000 people across England and Wales with a turnover of £26bn - and "anything that goes towards undermining that would be a problem", he says.

The society also fears multi-national law firms will be damaged by the loss of an EU directive allowing solicitors to work in other member states, saying this could mean complicated negotiations with authorities in each country they operate in.

Bad news for England and Wales could be good news for Ireland, where the Law Society is reporting a surge in the numbers of solicitors and barristers applying to practice.

'Absolutely vast'

MPs are beginning an inquiry into the implications of Brexit on the justice system, including a focus on the European Arrest Warrant, which the Law Society says must be retained.

Once Article 50 negotiations are complete, and the UK leaves, lawyers are likely to be kept busy by the government's Great Repeal Bill, with which it plans to incorporate all EU regulations into UK law, before picking and choosing the ones it wants to keep.

"It's absolutely vast," said Mr Bourns.

"We've been members of the EU for 43 years. There are about 350 directives that are presently in the course of implementation. So what happens to those?"

He predicted a "role for the courts" in settling disputes about whether EU or UK rules applied in different situations, and questioned what would happen when EU legislation is amended by Brussels after it has been incorporated into UK law.

As for what the UK decides to keep, he said the challenge would be to "ensure we don't inadvertently miss something that means we're disadvantaged".

"Lawyers are very much involved, there's no doubt about that.

"Clients are asking, and clients are planning. So there's a lot of work to be done."

But aren't lawyers just talking up the difficulties to make work for themselves?

"We will make the very best of it," Mr Bourns says.

"We are absolutely determined this should be regarded as an opportunity for us - we have no other choice."

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