BIRMINGHAM Law Society has become the first group in the UK to accept foreign solicitors.

The Society overturned centuries of tradition to open up membership to legal executives and overseas solicitors. It said the move would help BLS – one of the most successful regional Law Societies – widen its appeal.

Caroline Coates, BLS president, said: “This marks a momentous change. The time has come to broaden our reach and opening up membership will help the society properly reflect and represent the legal profession.

“It is surprising legal executives, for example, could not become members and it is fitting membership of Birmingham Law Society is now open to them.

“Enabling overseas solicitors to join is also an important step, particularly as we are trying establish better links and relationships with the global legal community.”

Although full membership will remain exclusively for qualified solicitors, members of the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX) and foreign lawyers not regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority can become affiliate members. Previously, only fully qualified solicitors were able to join the society. A BLS document dating to the 1800s specifically states: “The Society is for the benefit of qualified solicitors and no other.”

As affiliate members, barristers, legal executives, foreign lawyers, trainees, paralegals and students who join BLS will not have voting rights, but they will have access to other services and membership benefits, including receiving the Bulletin magazine every month, which contains news about the legal profession in the West Midlands and invitations to networking events. They will also have access to training courses at reduced members’ rates.

The national Law Society recently voted on similar changes but its existing members rejected the proposal. The group said strong international links, particularly with emerging markets could be vital for law firms looking to weather the economic crisis. The national society will hold an International Marketplace conference to help members understand how to build links with foreign practices.

It said although the UK is moving into recession, growth rates in much of the rest of the world are holding up, so law firms with balanced international and domestic practices are best placed to weather the slowdown.

The UK is expected to become an even more attractive location for foreign direct investment as sectors consolidate and sterling priced assets become cheaper, which will present potential opportunities to form relationships with international clients at home, it added.

It warned against this shifting business backdrop law firms need to think not only about short term tactics to shore up fee income but about longer term strategy to ensure they emerge in a more competitive position.

Alison Hook, head of the Law Society’s international department, said: “The idea behind the International Marketplace conference is to get the perspective of expert commentators on short and longer term prospects for international legal business, as well as to highlight developments in some of the world’s most exciting emerging markets.”