A bird? A plane? No, it's an abseiling solicitor

Next week the Law Society marks 150 years since the founding of its charter. To celebrate, it aims to put on 'a human face'. Sharon Wallach reports

It is unlikely to set the blood racing in the same way as the recent VE Day celebrations did. But the Law Society is not about to be outdone. The 150th anniversary of the granting of its charter is to be celebrated in National Law Week, beginning next Monday.

Meanwhile, in a move that officials insist is not connected to the fact that the candidates in the upcoming presidential election are united in their determination to introduce administrative changes, the society itself is undergoing an extensive internal reorganisation.

John Hayes, the society's secretary-general, says the restructuring, announced last week, will provide "the most practical and useful support to a profession facing many challenges," as well as making the most effective use of staff talents.

The Law Week event, described by the society as its largest public awareness campaign, aims "to help the public understand their legal rights and to put a human face on the law". The society's president, Charles Elly, says he wants the public to recognise the contribution of solicitors to the justice system and to the local economy.

The latest update on Law Week activities at local level is as thick as a paperback novel. Much is being done in the pro bono spirit as local law societies as well as individual firms throughout the country are offering free advice sessions along with wine or coffee. Many charities and local communities will benefit, too, via sponsored walks, five-a-side football tournaments, quizzes and cricket matches. One Southampton solicitor plans to abseil down a building and the Birmingham trainee solicitors group is donating blood (though presumably not to the Southampton solicitor), as well as visiting schools with a video aimed at getting sixth-formers interested in law.

The courts also feature in Law Week, with open days and mock trials organised by at least two local law societies and the Institute of Legal Executives, whose new council chamber will be opened by Charles Elly in front of regional TV cameras.

Radio phone-ins are a popular choice with several law societies, including Devon & Exeter, which is planning to run a limerick competition on air along the lines of "There was a solicitor from ..." What the prize will be remains unclear.

The West End climax to Law Week will be a show on Sunday at the Duke of York's Theatre, with proceeds going to Amnesty International and Justice. The programme includes scenes from the Royal National Theatre's Murmuring Judges, a monologue written by the Drop the Dead Donkey writer Guy Jenkins, and performances by The Archers' own solicitor Usha Gupta and the Crown Prosecutor cast.

Who knows what the performers will make of the changes at the Law Society's London-based operation, which will see the creation of four new departments, to be run by existing senior managers.

Corporate and regional affairs will be in the charge of Andrew Lockley, currently head of the legal practice directorate. "We have to be better about getting over what we are doing," says John Hayes. This includes creating a central resource encompassing the press and parliamentary unit and the president's office. A review of the society's constitution will also be the responsibility of this department.

Walter Merricks, the current head of communications, will take charge of a professional and legal policy directorate working on law reform, international relations and legal practice policy, and resource management and forward planning will bring administrative matters under the control of Jane Hern.

For the first time, membership services will be brought under one roof. According to Geoff Bignell, who will head the directorate, these have been "desperately neglected." The provision of services for its members is one of the core activities of a professional body but, in recent years, he says: "All the expansion has been in regulation and compliance. No wonder people identify the Law Society as purely a regulatory body."

According to John Hayes, the society's finance committee has been "sorely tempted" to establish a commercial division. "I'm against that," he says. "If it were purely money-making, it would mean getting rid of services like the library."

He says that the new directorate will be judged not on whether it makes a profit, but by how much members appreciate the services, the efficiency of provision and its ability to improve contacts with individual practitioners.

According to Walter Merricks, the reorganisation will be "cost-neutral". "It is designed to focus responsibilities in different ways," he says. "As we are approaching a time of change, we wanted to make sure the society had a management team capable of responding to new challenges. It is better to plan and implement changes in advance of those challenges."

The challengers for this summer's presidential elections have all included in their manifestos varying degrees of review of the Chancery Lane bureaucracy. In theory, a president has no more power than any other member of the council. But this year whoever wins the elections does so on a mandate from the profession as a whole, and will thus acquire a different status and standing in council than in the past, although the precise extent of his or her powers will depend on his or her majority.

But John Hayes is adamant the changes are coincidental to any growing mood for bureaucratic reform. He says he has been planning changes for 18 months, but wanted to wait to implement them until one of the senior managers has been in her current post for three years.

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