The Law Society is making a conscious effort to learn the lessons of last year’s Sound off for Justice campaign and be less of a “noisy critic” and focus more on lobbying the government, chief executive Des Hudson has said.
In the latest instalment of his exclusive interview with Legal Futures (see the first one here), Mr Hudson said “it’s very easy for me to pander to what hard-pressed, deeply concerned members are saying: do this, tell them that, sock it to them…
“If I’ve taken a learning point from it, [it is] were we as effective as an influencer, as a lobbyer as we were as a visible and noisy critic? And I think we needed to redress that slightly… I don’t think we had enough focus on influencing and certainly we’re trying to put that right at the moment.”
He was speaking before the furore over the Law Society’s discussions with the Ministry of Justice over legal aid reform.
Mr Hudson argued that he has achieved a lot in nearly seven years at the helm of solicitors’ professional body. “There is a difference in cost. There is a difference in the structure that we have. And there’s a difference in the things that we do. So if you look at our services, I would say they are significantly better than they used to be, and I also think if you look at the way we seek to lobby, influence and represent our members, I think that is much more robust and, where it needs to be, direct.
“I think we are more assertive in the new structure we operate post Legal Services Act in terms of talking about our members’ needs as well as the public interest.”
Mr Hudson suggested that the society is more in tune with its members than the strident critics who post comments on the website of its in-house journal, the Gazette, indicate. He pointed to the society’s consultation on whether to ban joint representation in conveyancing, for which there was strong support from online posters but not from the roadshows organised by the society.
“That one piece of factual evidence I have unequivocally proved that the voices being shared with the rest of us in the online Gazette are not representative.”
He also had a swipe at how few solicitors are prepared to put their names to their comments: “What I’m not seeking to do is to be disrespectful of anyone’s views and anyone who is prepared to put their name to a view, and wants to debate with me about that it is absolutely fine and I’m always ready to do that.”
The society has always had a difficult line to walk in representing members with competing interests; the latest manifestation of this is new providers licensed as alternative business structures by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. That means the likes of The Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), for example, can apply for the new wills and inheritance quality scheme (WIQS), even though ‘traditional’ law firms see CLS as a major competitor in this area; indeed CLS director Christina Blacklaws is a senior member of the society’s ruling council.
“I can talk to a range of members who would see these sorts of entrants as most unwelcome,” said Mr Hudson. “Equally I can talk to our members who say, ‘I quite fancy a career working for XYZ plc and I see that as a legitimate career planning option compared to private practice’. So we have to try and accommodate all of those issues.”
He stressed that WIQS and the conveyancing quality scheme (CQS) are about driving up standards. “And they do contain rules about the role of solicitor input to those activities. At the heart of CQS, for example, is our attempt to retain the massive influence of solicitors in the residential conveyancing market.
“What I see is that the solicitor is probably the only person in the conveyancing market who is unequivocally on the side of the client. And so, you’ve got the situation now where major corporate can’t make enough money from selling houses, so they need to do some conveyancing; they then… say ‘if we refer for money a client you must also as well as paying us money for that client use our search system’. And that seems to me not in the wider interests of the consumer.
“So what we’re looking to do in all of these things is very clearly demonstrate the solicitor focused on looking after their client’s interest is a unique player in this fast changing and confusing market. And that solicitor has the same rules to follow whether they are working for Clifford Chance, the Co-op or Hudson & Co on the high street.”
With the Legal Services Board starting an investigation into the cost of regulation, the question will resurface of whether the element of practising fees that goes to the Law Society for those non-regulatory but ‘permitted purposes’ of representation should remain compulsory or become a voluntary contribution (remembering that while solicitors have to be regulated by the SRA and pay their practising fees, they do not actually have to be members of the Law Society).
Essentially, do we need the Law Society?
“At the moment and I certainly think for the foreseeable future, I think it delivers very valuable benefits not just to the public interest but particularly to our solicitor members. You may or may not think the Law Society is the best thing since sliced bread but if we didn’t have a nationally resourced organisation to put forward the view of solicitors and practitioners in the widest range of activities – so high street, in-house, employed solicitors in government, the major international firms – the profession would be the poorer for the absence of it.
“It is very difficult for me to demonstrate its value for money, for me to say that we always do that really, really well, but if you don’t have people with the resources to do that, then I think the profession would be much worse.
“Look at the people who come to us saying intervene in that case, make money available to help us litigate on that, sue the Legal Services Commission to prevent their proposed civil re-tendering which would have left swathes of the country without civil legal aid solicitors. Who would have done that if there wasn’t such a thing as the Law Society funded and resourced as it is?”
He insisted that schemes as the CQS have to pay their way but are not money-making schemes for the Law Society – which this week agreed to increase the cost of practising certificates sharply.
“As a matter of conscious policy decision, we do not seek to optimise profit from the services we charge to our members. Because if we did, we’re simply taking money back off them that they would otherwise be giving in the practising certificate fee… We do choose to optimise profitability of those services to non-members.”
Mr Hudson receives a salary far in excess of many of those he represents, even though this year it dipped for the first time since he took the job. Is he worth the money?
“Yes, but that’s not the important issue. I don’t fix my salary, I don’t determine my salary – other people do. They need to make that choice and that judgement.”