Solicitors are to be balloted on changes to the make-up of Law Society council and limits on how long members can sit on it, at a cost of about £30,000, following a divided AGM yesterday.
The Law Society AGM, delayed from July and held remotely, saw solicitors back motions to limit council members’ tenures to 12 years, and reshape the 100 seats on the body, with fewer seats going to geographical areas and more for those representing practice areas and ‘characteristics’, so as to better reflect the demographics of the profession.
The council had voted against terms limits when it had its say earlier in the year.
The motion, among whose proposers were several council members, passed by 103 votes to 80, with three abstentions.
Amendments to increase the limit to 20 years or to allow council members who were chairing certain Law Society boards and committees to finish their terms even if their 12 years were up, were both defeated.
The change to the make-up of the council, which would see the number of geographical constituencies reduced from 61 to 46, passed by 117 votes to 73, with 11 abstentions.
Under Law Society bye-laws, only 20 solicitors present at the AGM needed to vote for a ballot of the profession to trigger one, and this was easily achieved on both motions.
They were proposed by Peter Causton, the council member representing civil litigation, and seconded by former member Jonathan Frayling.
Mr Causton said only a “very selective audience” had attended the AGM and the issues were so important for the Law Society that they should be voted on by the membership.
Having some 180 solicitors in attendance, including council members, was a significant increase compared to previous years of in-person AGMs, although just a tiny fraction of the 200,000-plus solicitors on the roll, the vast majority of whom are likely also to be members of the Law Society.
Outgoing president Simon Davis said the vote was likely to cost in the region of £30,000 – in the days before electronic voting was possible, such polls would cost £80,000.
Making the case for limiting council members to three terms of four years, Melinda Giles, who represents the society’s private client section, argued that it was “a matter of good governance”, while more turnover of members would allow a greater number and diversity of the profession’s voices to be heard.
There were, she added, “many other ways experienced council members could contribute”, for example by joining Law Society committees. The move would also encourage them to mentor the next generation of members.
Former president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff observed that spending a long time on the council “only makes you more experienced in council procedure” rather than in what the profession needed.
Several council members spoke against the motion. Michael Frape (Bedfordshire & Cambridgeshire) described it as “undemocratic” and argued that “some of the best council members” were those with many years of experience of the role.
Sundeep Bhatia (Ethnic minorities) spoke of how he valued the “corporate experience” of senior members, while Nick Gurney-Champion (Hampshire & the Isle of Wight) challenged the argument that potential members were unwilling to challenge incumbents, noting that former president Robert Bourns lost his City of London seat last year to young in-house lawyer Salome Coker.
James Kitching (Junior Lawyers Division) countered that the fact the example of Mr Bourns was “repeatedly used” showed how rare an occurrence it actually was.
The debate over the make-up of council was dominated by the concerns of local government lawyers, who are set to lose one of their two seats in the shake-up, despite 5,000 solicitors working in the sector.
Quentin Baker, who chairs the Lawyers in Local Government group, described the proposal as “ill conceived” and predicted it would end up “disappointing more people than it benefits”.
He argued that it amounted to “piecemeal tinkering” rather than the more in-depth review of the Law Society’s governance that was required.
Others also expressed doubts about how the seats were to be divided, while some noted the proposal had been drafted before Covid-19 and that now was not the time to make a change before the impact had been assessed.
However, Ms Scott-Moncrieff urged solicitors “to grasp the nettle”, saying that the council had not been reformed for 20 years.
“Change is always painful and uncomfortable unless you do it little and often and we haven’t done it little and often,” she said.
At the end of two and a half hours of debate, Simon Davis handed over as president to David Greene. Mr Davis said he hoped that, over the course of his elongated term, solicitors had moved from asking ‘What does the Law Society do for me?’ to saying ‘Thank goodness for the Law Society’.