In rather less than a year, the Law Society's controversial president has exposed more of his profession's dirty linen, and ruffled more of its comfortable feathers, than all of his predecessors put together. With learned friends like Martin Mears, do lawyers need enemies?

A year ago, the Law Society could have won a prize in a contest for the most boring public body in Britain. Staid, discreet and fusty, it went about its business of admitting solicitors to the profession, regulating their conduct and lobbying on their behalf with quiet self- belief. And then along came Martin Mears.

A Victor Meldrew among country solicitors, the explosively choleric Mears stood for the Law Society's presidency on a ticket of making you and me and every member of the public pay more to move house. He was incensed by the growing gulf between solicitors and their elected representatives on the Law Society's Council, and particularly by the Council's failure to check - or even apparently care about - the downward slide of conveyancing fees. Fees, he said, were now too low for solicitors to be able to provide a proper service: mistakes were being made. No wonder the public had so little respect for their lawyers.

As some 25 per cent of smaller law firms are currently said to be in financial difficulty as a result of deregulation in the Eighties and the slump in the property market, Mears's message was extremely popular. Last June, in only the second contested election for president in 150 years, he won a convincing victory.

Since then, this iconoclast from the sticks has pitched himself like a human cannonball at all those he perceives to be his enemies. Since these include almost all of his 74 colleagues on the Council, the Law Society is no longer the dull establishment it was. "When I was elected," he tells me, "I said at the very beginning I would stand for a second year as president, which no one's ever done before, because I knew that I would spend the first 12 months defeating the opposition here, never mind outside." Some might say his re-election campaign started at once. At any rate, the president of this once august body is now openly at war with almost everyone else involved.

Four of the most senior members of his staff have left. Several Council members to whom I spoke admitted to being discouraged and depressed. Disputes have been aired freely in the press, partly because Mears is a writer of verve; partly because, as a populist, he has had to appeal over the heads of what he calls "the old guard" on the Council to his electorate, the 70,000 solicitors in the country. His opponents accuse him of being hypocritical, anti-women, anti-progress, "an enemy of the profession". He retorts that he and his vice-president, Robert Sayer, who stood on the same ticket, are embattled figures, fending off the hordes who would thwart them. "We are elected as outsiders against the official Council candidates, who have been sitting there year after year, waiting for Buggins's turn. And we have come and dashed the cup from their lips. What do you think they think about that? Do you think they want us to succeed? In anything?"

To listen to the dramatic language, you would think Mears was caught up in an extended solicitors' cut of the closing scenes from Reservoir Dogs. In his own mind, he probably is.

The Law Society's grand neo-classical buildings in Chancery Lane exude sober self-importance. In the president's office, they answer the phone by saying "secretariat", as if it were some mysterious branch of the cabinet office. Arriving for an audience with the president, you wait in a colonnaded reading room, part gentleman's club, part university common room, a place steeped in establishment understandings and privilege. Past presidents gaze down from the walls, and not one of them is smiling.

The Law Society is a vast bureaucracy, employing some 700 people. (Mears shrugs and widens his eyes when I ask what they all do.) Its Council meets eight times a year, sets the rules for solicitors and represents their interests to the world; and though most of its 75 members are democratically elected by geographical constituencies (a handful are co-opted to speak for special interests), it has not until recently been a particularly politicised body.

In this setting, Martin Mears has the roguish charm of the outsider. Like Margaret Thatcher, he is a maverick with a democratic mandate, pledged to rout complacency, shake up the stuffed shirts, get things going. He greets me in his large but slightly shabby room, looking anything but revolutionary. Not especially tall, he is rubicund, with thinning hair combed over his scalp. He wears gold-rimmed spectacles, an old-fashioned watch-chain, and has an odd manner of speaking - a difficulty with his "r"s, and slightly contorted, swallowed vowels - which makes everything he says sound a little pursed and disapproving. But he also has great personal charm, which he does not scruple to exercise.

He achieves his effect - and I suspect it works less well with men, or with women who actually have to work with him - with a complicit, flattering wit, suggesting that you're on his side and it's all hugely entertaining. I spoke to him on his car phone some time after our initial interview, when he had been vilified in the press over a speech at the Women Lawyers' Conference. "I am sitting here all depressed," he told me theatrically. "I have been identified with the forces of darkness." There is something flirtatious about this, something that plays off his steely intransigence and turns it all into a bit of a joke. It is said that when crossed by female Law Society employees he will make such remarks as: "What's the matter? You never laugh at my jokes any more." In the light of his frequently stated views that women suffer no discrimination and that sexual harassment is not an issue, this tone can lead people to conclude he doesn't take women seriously.

He erupted into the presidency last year with negligible experience of the Law Society. He had practised for 30 years as a solicitor in Norfolk, where he had set up a firm that now has 50 staff and four branches, and became editor of his local Law Society journal three and a half years ago. He claims that following the first issue, "the committee convened a special committee and gave me the sack". "Whatever for?" I ask, and he shrugs, affecting mystification: "Some mild criticism of Chancery Lane."

Since he likes nothing better than a scrap, he then decided to stand for the national Council against his area's official candidate. "He was supported by the local president, but I defeated him with 64 per cent to 36 per cent, talking about reform of the Law Society. You can't imagine the indignities I suffered after that - for example, they had a visit to Norfolk from the powers, the grand people here, and I was a Council member then, but I wasn't invited on to the platform or to speak, and I wasn't invited to dinner with the Chancery Lane people afterwards."

After only six months on the Council, he decided to stand for the presidency, realising that he could turn his inexperience to advantage. Many solicitors have a fairly jaundiced view of their representative body, because it hedges them around with rules and disciplines them when they transgress. And whereas doctors, say, have the BMA to represent and the General Medical Council to regulate them, solicitors have no equivalent of the BMA. The Law Society is also their trade union. In these circumstances its Council has to decide how much to lead, and how much to follow; and recently it had mostly been leading, taking a distinctly consumerist line - demanding, for example, that solicitors continue with their education and get accreditation for specialisms. Mears appealed to a yearning for a body that would fight unashamedly to restore the profitability that has been eroded since solicitors lost their monopoly on conveyancing.

A grammar school boy from Cardiff who had spent most of his working life in Norfolk, Mears also appealed to an anti-metropolitan spirit. He is the son of a housewife and a chartered surveyor, and was educated by the Christian Brothers and at Oxford, where he read law. He did his articles with a London firm, Forsyte Kerman, but moved to the country in 1960. "I went to Norfolk for banal quality of life reasons, and because I like running my own firm. I am the senior partner there, and I set it up. I would rather be my own man with one girl above a dry cleaner than be a cog in a machine. A control freak, I think it's called."

His ability to identify with "one man with a girl" (and to speak in such terms, when others would be saying carefully, "one solicitor and a secretary") is the source of his power. In his election campaign, he made a simple appeal to his constituents' naked self-interest, and he identified an enemy - "the very pith and essence of my manifesto was anti-Law Society." It worked. In last June's elections, Mears beat Henry Hodge - a north London solicitor and the husband of Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and former leader of Islington Council - by 11,550 votes to 8,254. A third candidate, Eileen Pembridge, whom Mears called during the campaign "a viper of political correctness" and "probably the most dangerous feminist in England", polled 3,515 votes.

If he is a radical, he is one of a particularly conservative kind. Ask him what the Council stands for, other than Buggins's turn and flooring Martin Mears, and he makes a kind of "pah!" noise of derision. "Oh, you've got a kind of," he rolls the words around his mouth with relish, "liberal left consensus." Martin Mears's project is essentially Luddite. You sense he would be happiest in a 1959 time warp, when conveyancing fees were still indexed to house prices and solicitors didn't have to work very hard after the age of about 45; when they were automatically and unquestioningly respected in their communities. So he only resembles Margaret Thatcher up to a point: where she wanted to undermine the comfortable privileges of the professions, Martin Mears wants to restore them.

Asking the public not only to pay more for conveyancing but also to rediscover their enthusiasm for solicitors might seem to be an ambition requiring the skills of a three card trickster. But Martin Mears is a clever man, and his argument certainly sounds plausible. "It's in the public interest to have a proper job done, and the public must recognise that, as in every other area of activity, you can't expect a proper job, not in the long term, if you're not paying a proper price." The Law Society calculates it takes a minimum of six hours to complete a simple conveyancing transaction. "If you're a high street practice with normal overheads, you need to be charging pounds 100 an hour for your time, just to make a profit. Some firms are charging pounds 140 per transaction, and the majority are charging pounds 200, pounds 250. And I would say you can't square that circle. In the end, something has to give."

There is only one snag. Neither of the solutions Mears has so far proposed is feasible. The first, to make charging the full price mandatory, foundered on the legal obstacle that solicitors' practice rules exist to protect the public, not to make solicitors a profit. The second, to exclude cut- price conveyancers from the mutual insurance scheme, ran into trouble after a legal opinion suggested that the cut-price merchants weren't necessarily making the mistakes anyway. The Master of the Rolls also circulated a letter to the Council, in which - in the most polite, oblique and legalistic way - he stressed he was having none of it. Quite unprecedentedly, he suggested this letter could be published - showing, according to one Council member, that he "wanted to make public his disapproval".

Mears and Sayer are now cooking up some new wheeze, but cynics could be forgiven for thinking they are making desperate, even laughable, last stands. It's a similar story with Mears's other election pledges. He wanted to bring the semi-detached Solicitors' Complaints Bureau back in house; he has had to accept its further removal from the profession's control in its new guise as Ofsol. He wanted to restrict the numbers of young solicitors coming into the profession. Two counsel's opinions declared this was likely to be unlawful. Mears has now disbanded his working party, hand-picked to look at this issue, on the grounds that it was making no progress.

Yet he has managed to pull off an extraordinary trick, as if with mirrors. Though his plans have been thwarted by the law, in interviews, articles and speeches he has managed to imply that the only obstacle to reform is the Council of the Law Society. "They are wedded to old methods," he tells me. "Their culture is wholly different to mine, wholly different. Nothing can be done in this atmosphere of defeatism and people with different agendas." He talks with pride of the watch he was given by supporters, inscribed "don't let the bastards get you down", and the calculator presented to him by a local law society, "so I could work out the number of my opponents on the Council". He explains that he goes out to address local societies as much as possible, "to absorb the warm atmosphere - which you need, because there's not much of it here."

At this point a woman member of staff pokes her head round the door in search of some directory or other. Mears doesn't know what it looks like and their brief conversation is chilly with suppressed hostility. When she goes out, he shrugs: "See what I have to put up with?"

Since he arrived at the Law Society, the secretary-general, the head of corporate affairs, the head of public relations and the head of the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau have all left. It is one thing to be fierce in defence of your beliefs, another to be so bellicose that people find you impossible to deal with. I wonder how much the opposition to him is about principles and how much about his abrasive style? "It's both. If you weren't combative - which I am - all this would crush you. My reaction to any blow is to inflict two in return. And that's what I've done from the beginning. For me every battle is to be won, and I will oppose all their nonsense, because if I compromise, if I say this one's too insignificant to fight, it's reported as 'President suffers defeat'. Always."

"All their nonsense" in this context is his description of the Council's anti-discrimination policies. Mears has criticised these relentlessly, not least because they provide fertile ground for his populism. Political correctness is easily guyed, with a scorn that plays well to the gallery - so sexual harrassment is "a non-issue, a banging of the feminist drum". Targets for the employment of ethnic minorities are "unenforceable, ineffective, gesture politics". And it is "a nonsense and a fiction to assert that there is any kind of prejudice against women anywhere in the public or quasi-public sector. The exact opposite is the case." He tends to insist on having his say on such matters at choice moments: he made these remarks about women at a Women Lawyers' Conference a fortnight ago, the theme of which was "Changing The Culture". The language is actually subtle, but sounds vehement - leading his supporters and opponents alike to imagine he thinks women should really be at home with their children.

He tends to justify his position by recourse to personal experience. The woman with whom he lives, Susan Greenwood, turned down a partnership on the grounds that it wouldn't give her enough time with their children. "You do see women dropping out, not going for the top jobs," he says. "Now, why? You find out by asking them, and they will tell you they have other things that they consider more important. Now, I'm not saying that's how they should think. I'm merely describing what is there. But that's regarded as offensive. The correct thing to say is that there's some form of prejudice or glass ceiling."

He is right, of course, that women often make the choice he describes, and those who speak for them should not forget it. But the Mears account entirely leaves out the wider pressures on women to assume domestic responsibilities, and the assumptions that are made about them on that basis. He is 56, and he likes women: he finds their company stimulating and enjoys their intelligence. He may, for that very reason, find it particularly difficult to appreciate that, as colleagues, what they may want is something more than flattery and playfulness.

His pronouncements on divorce reform are characteristically deft: he speaks carefully, but manages to leave an impression of extremism. Some members of the Solicitors' Family Law Association came away from a meeting he addressed convinced that he'd said too many adulterous women were getting custody of their children. He insists he was making a more general point about inequality between fathers and mothers in custody cases, and "that it's wrong to treat someone who is admitted to have behaved impeccably the same as someone who has behaved far from impeccably".

Whatever, his frequently stated opinion that divorce should be made more difficult has infuriated his Council colleagues, not least because as president he speaks with all the weight of the Law Society behind him, and the Law Society officially holds quite other views. He has no sense of the collective responsibility which previously governed Council members' public statements: giving me a set of figures, he said "they're the Law Society's", as if it were some slightly suspect foreign body.

There is also a discomfiting distance between his public statements and his private life. In 1990, Mears was divorced from his wife Elisabeth, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has five children.

"Martin makes a lot of conquests and then abandons them," she told the Mail on Sunday recently. "There were so many infidelities during our marriage. The trouble with being the wife of an unfaithful husband is that you have no social life because he is not there, no sex life." Only when she left their Georgian rectory did she become convinced he'd been having a long affair with his former articled clerk, with whom he now lives and has two young children. "I went to London to face her one Sunday morning and called her a trollop. I said to her 'How could you?' and she said: 'Why not me? There were so many others.' "

The Law Society's head of public affairs, Sue Stapley, had warned Mears that this story would come out in shock-horror fashion if he continued to take a moralistic line without clarifying his own position. Sure enough, in January the Mail on Sunday ran the story in graphic detail. I ask whether he wishes he had come clean initially, and he explodes, though with some amusement. "What do you mean, come clean? For God's sake, you can't imagine the absurdity of this. Everyone at home, in the office, here, knows that I am not married to the lady with whom I live. It's absolutely absurd. She goes under her maiden name; our children have two names. They're registered in school as my name and her name, separately. No secret. And I've been separated for 10 years, for God's sake, and they prise my wife out of God knows where to give me unglowing testimonials. And what have I said? That divorce is too easy, that easy divorce has adverse social consequences, and we should be looking at ways of making it more difficult. Now, where there's an inconsistency between that and my personal circumstances, I do not know. Bear in mind, I am the person who was divorced, not the other way round."

All the same, he had a bitter, public row with Stapley when she circulated the article in a routine batch of press cuttings. And while he is right that it's logical enough to take a moral view while not always appearing to behave entirely morally, unfortunately, that can also look like hypocrisy, especially if you then go on about the morality. The price of being a public figure may be that you're not allowed to have it both ways.

In the blue and gold chamber, the full Council is sitting, and Martin Mears, in the chair, is working through proposals, amendments and resolutions. There is no blood on the carpet. Members are scrupulous with their courtesies, the atmosphere is civil, and the business, to an outsider, is tedious. You can't help wondering why he wants this job. He seems unlikely to achieve his manifesto promises, and he's smart enough to know it. "I have not promised the profession anything," he tells me. "All I've promised is to take up their agenda and pursue it. For example, to change our indemnity rules to exclude cut-price conveyancers would require the consent of the senior judge. I might not get it. But what I want to say to the profession is: 'This is what you wanted done: I've tried to do it.' And that's all you can promise, isn't it?"

Aha. He may, though, have unleashed forces beyond his control. Mears at the moment looks rather like Karensky with the Bolsheviks coming up on the inside. A Bournemouth solicitor, John Edge, who describes Mears as "my hero", has amassed 13,000 signatures in support of a campaign to "do something" about conveyancing fees. He has bought Mears's argument that the Council is the real obstruction - "they block him at every turn" - and intends to try to change the Society's by-laws to allow for a general election of all members. (Normally about 15 seats come up each year). He has also launched his own trade union, the Solicitors' Association, and says he would like half the Law Society's income, some pounds 20m.

The real point of all this fuss about conveyancing, though, is that solicitors can no longer depend upon that alone to secure them a comfortable living. The days of "one man and a girl", of the generalist solicitor, are probably numbered. They know this even in The Archers, where Usha Gupta is currently trying to merge her firm with a larger practice which employs more specialists. The boom areas of the future are likely to be employment law, information technology, intellectual property, packages for small businesses - and those who do wish to carry on conveyancing will have to sharpen up their act. Very few firms, for example, currently have a computer link to the Land Registry.

Mears's demagoguery echoes the prejudices of a constituency which is profoundly resistant to change. Which is not to say he is entirely a force for ill: he has alerted the Law Society to the need to respond to its membership, and it seems unlikely it will ever be quite as cosy again. But focusing on the way solicitors went on in the past may well be distracting the Council from pressing questions of the present and the future. The Council of the Law Society needs, for example, to develop policies on multidisciplinary partnerships (say, with accountants), in which the Labour Party has shown interest, and on Lord Justice Woolf's proposals on civil justice. It needs a cool and open-minded discussion of the tensions inherent in trying to operate as a professional in an increasingly raw marketplace.

What will happen to Mears? Perhaps he will yet find a home in one of the right-wing newspapers. He writes pungently, already has a column with the Norwich-based Eastern Daily Press, and could probably fulminate at will, in the manner of a Paul Johnson. Some people believe that this is what he would really like.

It is said he was belligerent at university, and he clearly relishes both the fight ("I like the combat, it gets the adrenalin going") and the notoriety. How did I think he'd performed on a recent edition of Newsnight, he asked - and then told me: "I'd know if it was bad, because all the people here would be running up to tell me: this carpet would be worn out. No one on the Council has mentioned it."

He should beware. He was elected partly on a pledge to make solicitors honoured again in their communities, to improve their standing with the public. But he is in danger of sending the public a rather different message from the one he intends - that solicitors are making a lot of mistakes with our conveyancing, but that they nevertheless want to be paid more for it. The spats at the Law Society may be hugely entertaining for the rest of us, but they are hardly dignified. In the end solicitors are trading in our trust. If we can no longer give it to them, they have nothing. !

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