Where next for the Law Society?

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

The two-finger KitKat is apparently Britain’s most popular biscuit. The Law Society isn’t so popular

The Law Society, if nothing else, is a decent host and members attending the special general meeting (SGM) on Tuesday were treated to KitKats among the refreshments on offer. Appropriately enough they were the two-finger variety, which is certainly the gesture some see the vote of no-confidence in president Nick Fluck and chief executive Des Hudson to be.

But for all the headlines of chaos at Chancery Lane and supposed pressure on the pair to resign, I believe the reality is that the SGM vote will have negligible impact, at least in the foreseeable future. The unexpectedly narrow margin by which the motion passed has helped the ruling council essentially ignore the vote.

A spokeswoman confirmed that neither man will be standing down – the post-SGM council meeting expressed its confidence in them, she said – and that the council will continue its controversial policy of engagement with the Ministry of Justice.

Of course, the vote was effectively one of no-confidence in the council itself, as it provided the much talked-about mandate for the negotiating stance, so this outcome should surprise nobody. Nor should it, sadly, be a surprise that the meeting was held behind closed doors. Why not let people see the council in action and taking on board the views of the many solicitors who supported the motion?

Indeed, the Law Society’s post-council meeting press release was disingenuous, with a headline proclaiming that “Council heeds members’ call for continued opposition to criminal legal aid cuts”. That wasn’t really the point of the SGM. Such sophistry does the society no favours, nor did the pettiness of the society’s Twitter account in only relaying favourable comments made at the SGM.

Similarly the repeated calls by Law Society representatives for unity ignored the fact that – for better or worse, and I am not judging which – it is Chancery Lane that has broken the unprecedented unity being displayed by the main specialist representative groups for criminal law solicitors and barristers. But I repeat a point I have made before that nobody can accuse the Law Society of taking the easy option in its approach to the government’s criminal legal aid agenda – and given the involvement of the likes of Richard Miller, Rodney Warren and Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, nobody can doubt the sincerity of its motives.

The SGM itself was conducted with excellent decorum – no shouting down or heckling. It felt a bit stage-managed at first as one after another, Law Society speakers came to the various podiums (the society expected more people than actually attended and had rigged up video links between six rooms across the building to accommodate them all), but its critics soon found eloquent voice.

It would have taken a truly seismic vote to have shaken the foundations of Chancery Lane, and this wasn’t it. The closeness of the poll – influenced, of course, by the presence of dozens of council members ahead of their meeting – was not reflected by those who contributed and the relative support their speeches received (in the main common room, at least).

It was certainly curious. With the exception of unimpressive contributions from two City solicitors, only those with a close connection to the society – council members, past presidents and the like – spoke against the motion, and yet it turned out that there was a silent near-majority in the room supporting the society.

There is now lots of talk about the need to reflect on the lessons of the SGM, to improve communications with members and so on – but in a year’s time, will we have seen any substantial change? I hope I’m wrong to be sceptical, but my confidence in the Law Society’s ability to reform itself is minimal. The council is a cumbersome body that has time and again failed to deliver any real improvement to the society’s governance.

There is a difficult circular argument that says those disaffected by the Law Society should put their money where their mouths are and stand for election to the council to improve things; but it is that very disaffection, and lack of belief in the organisation, which discourages them from doing so. Personal injury lawyers, who were let down by their representative body over LASPO, know the feeling.

But interestingly several speakers at the SGM recognised a degree of culpability on their own part in failing to hold their representative body to account up until now, so maybe there will be a movement for greater engagement by members with the Law Society and for genuine change. Let’s hope.

The stakes are high. It is important not to forget that 27% of practising fees raised from solicitors, amounting this year to the very considerable sum of £31.8m, goes to the Law Society in its representative guise. Solicitors should care where their money is going to.

An astonishing £120,000 of that was swallowed up by the SGM. I’m told this figure is made up of both direct costs, such as the services for the Electoral Reform Society and staging company, and indirect costs, like staff time and lost income by having the building effectively shut for two days.

But for now it looks like that is also the cost of a Pyrrhic victory.

    Readers Comments

  • Peter Adams says:

    It is good that you have mentioned the opportunity to join the Council – I was in the library for the debate and I could not help wondering how many of those who supported the motion had taken any steps – in particular standing for election or even getting involved in Law Society Committees or in their local law society – before deciding that the Law Society’s approach deserved the resolution.
    I have not met anyone who is unsympathetic to the dreadful corner into which Legal Aid lawyers have been driven. The shame about the SGM is that while I am sure we all agree about the ill, the ill is not of the Law Society’s making, nor is the remedy in the hands of the Law Society. As I listened to Mr Parry’s presentation, I cannot imagine anyone in the room disagreeing with the first half.
    The objective is how best to move the government and I, for one, am firmly and unashamedly in the camp of the evidence-based approach. We can and should always strive to do better, particularly in the area of communicating with our members, but I cannot see where the resolution fits into that.

  • Isn’t the Law Society an irrelevance to most present day law firms?

  • Stephen Larcombe says:

    I was at the SGM.

    The speakers against the motion sounded weary, unimpressive and in two cases positively arrogant!

    The biggest problem for the Law Society is that the “secret deal”,signed without the approval of the Justice Alliance, is just one more surrender in a series of surrenders, going back to the Legal Services Act 2007.

    The Law Society. now relieved of its regulatory function. has frankly lost its way, and certainly its passion for justice.

    The Government now has little respect for the Law Society, but the way to regain its standing is for the Law Society to become, in part, a campaigning body. There are plenty of open goals- what with the emasculation of legal aid, the reduction of judicial review rights and the advent of “secret hearings”.

    The SGM may turn out to be a seminal moment for the profession but we shall have to wait and see what happens in 2014

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