Law: The profession's new face

Kamlesh Bahl, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, is running to be deputy vice-president of that white-male bastion, the Law Society. Commentators are rubbing their hands with glee. But will the legal world accept her?
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Take A look at this face: you'll be seeing it again. It's destined to make countless appearances on Question Time, Newsnight, and Channel 4 News. It will deliver opinions on a wide range of issues, with one specialist subject: the legal profession. But that's only if its owner, Kamlesh Bahl, can pull off the relatively modest achievement of election to the position of deputy vice-president of the Law Society.

To the media, Bahl's face is the stuff of dreams. It's not white, and nor does it belong to a man. Bahl presents a refreshing change from the endless parade of white men summoned to pronounce on matters of national importance. Especially legal affairs - an area in which white men exert an even stronger than usual pre-eminence.

Not that Bahl exactly constitutes a novelty act. She's already amassed considerable experience in media relations, having served since 1993 as chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission. "I have the hide of a rhino," she says of her current job. "It's my task to be a public figure."

She's even been used as the model for a character in Britain's favourite radio soap: "The Archers were looking to introduce a female Asian solicitor," she says. "They contacted me and sat me down and told me to tell them about my background." The result: legal aid litigator Usha Gupta becoming a regular fixture at Ambridge.

Sitting in her vast London office (the main one is in Manchester), Bahl explains that being dark-skinned and female has not always been an advantage. Far from it. She first came across discrimination immediately after leaving Birmingham University, where she had done rather well.

"People told me to apply to big firms, with good prospects. I made 250 applications - at a time when there was a shortage of articled clerks - and had lots of interviews, but got just one offer. "That, she says, is the worst discrimination she's suffered personally, but through her job at the EOC - which funds some 50 per cent of cases sent from Britain to the European Court of Justice - she's gained plenty of second-hand experience. "I still get letters from people who have made 250 applications today," she says solemnly. "I don't think the landscape has changed very much, there are just better support groups."

All of which makes Bahl sound encouragingly right-on. Perfect for dealing with a Labour government which has already flagged its contempt for the profession by leaking to the press radical proposals for legal aid, a day before announcing them to the Solicitors' Annual Conference.

But Bahl is not, in fact, even remotely left-wing. Let's not forget, the government which appointed her to the EOC was Conservative. "This job was advertised and I decided to have a go," she remembers. "There were two interviews, one with a junior minister and civil servants, and the next with (the then Secretary of State) Gillian Shepherd and about ten civil servants. That was tough, they really grilled you!' But she obviously performed satisfactorily. Against competition from 250 (that number again) other candidates, Bahl became, at 36, the organisation's youngest-ever head, and the first from an ethnic minority.

In person, she's drily persuasive, issuing forth a steady stream of common sense. Though she smiles warmly, the overall effect, enhanced by a neat suit and spectacles, is seriousness. Similarly, her background is safely "Establishment". One uncle was chief justice in Kenya; and her father - who brought the family to Britain in the mid-60s, when Kamlesh was nine - was a civil servant. Even her quirky hobbies have respectable explanations. Bahl recently started taking lessons in singing and playing the harmonium an, a reed organ used a lot in Indian music. "To develop a better appreciation of music," she reveals. "That was one of my New Year's resolutions."

She's done well, and she knows it: "When I was appointed, the EOC was seen as a marginal, left-wing, irrelevant organisation. It was not consulted before decisions were made. It did not have good relationships with government or employers. Under my leadership, it has been transformed from an organisation under threat into a highly respected and credible body with an excellent international reputation." (Even if she does say so herself). It's not just the EOC which has benefited from her input. Among other achievements, Bahl is a board member of two health authorities, a governor of the University of Westminster, a member of the council of Justice - oh, and a member of the Law Society's council since 1990. Over the years, she has collected an impressive list of high-level contacts, including the Prime Minister's wife (a leading employment lawyer), the head of the CBI, Adair Turner, and John Monks at the TUC. The former Tory Employment Secretary, Lord Hunt of Wirral - himself a solicitor - remains a fan, pronouncing himself "very impressed" by her.

There's only so much to achieve, career-wise, at the Equal Opportunities Commission. Bahl was appointed CBE last year, and next year she's standing down. All being well, she should by then have served for a year as deputy vice-president at the Law Society. After a further year as vice-president, she could take over as president in July 2000. Slow progress, perhaps, but that shows she's aware of the challenge facing her: the Law Society budget is ten times as big as the EOC's, and while the EOC has just four offices (the main one in Manchester), the Law Society has them dotted all over the country.

Bahl has planned her campaign with care. To minimise the prospect of a challenge, she announced her candidacy as long ago as October, and has consistently eschewed alignment with any particular "ticket". After all, Law Society elections have not, historically, been contested. But in 1995, the maverick from East Anglia, Martin Mears, came from nowhere to win the presidency, and now a friend of Mears, Huddersfield solicitor David Keating, has stood against Bahl.

Keating says he was urged to stand because Bahl lacks the necessary experience. Her entire career, he says, has involved working as an "employed" solicitor- for the GLC, the still-nationalised British Steel, and in the private sector. In other words, she's never worked at a law firm. "And for five years," Keating adds, "she has been chairwoman of a quango, not working as a solicitor as such." (To many people, that hardly disqualifies her.)

"Ask her what her actual policies are," says Keating. It's fair to say that on this point, Bahl is vague. She worries about the Society's conflict of interest as regulator of solicitors and also their "trade union". She wants members of the council to have a "fuller" role. And she predicts competition from unfamiliar quarters "Sainsbury's has already done petrol and pharmacies," she says. "I think legal services are just around the corner."

Bahl is full of these interesting notions. She says of herself: "I do give it my everything. There are days when people here say: `You are not allowed to have any more ideas'."

Keating concedes that she's "a very able person, very pleasant". But that, he says, is not enough. The Law Society needs strong leadership, after going through some terrible times. An ill-fated computer project for high street solicitors recently wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds. The Solicitors Indemnity Fund, an insurance scheme into which all firms must contribute, found itself pounds 500m short. And the government's legal aid proposals require close scrutiny. But in the end - let's face it - Bahl's only standing for deputy vice-president. If solicitors are unhappy with her performance in that junior position, there's a simple solution: they can vote for somebody else next time round.