The law: shaken not stirred

Law Society president Martin Mears may claim to be a radical but a ginger group has been thinking the unthinkable to reform the legal profession . Stephen Ward reports

The big fight at this week's Law Society special council meeting will be over a bid by the president, Martin Mears, to swing the balance of power away from the secretariat to the elected officials, notably the president, and his attempt to drag the council behind fixed conveyancing fees. The tussle will be enlivened by a discussion behind closed doors of an pounds 80,000 golden handshake negotiated by the secretary-general, John Hayes, with the director of the troubled Solicitors' Complaints Bureau, Veronica Lowe, to be paid whenever the society gets round to deciding on the bureau's future.

Meanwhile, probably a more helpful contribution to the debate has been circulating for more than a month inside the Law Society. It is thoughtful and provocative, and given that the authors' careers have been within the society, a brave document. It was written by a think-tank called the Ginger Group, set up in 1989 by Mr Hayes, and is made up of Law Society staff at all levels, including some from the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau.

"Our role is to think the unthinkable and to consider issues that are of general concern but are not necessarily within the remit of particular committees, departments or working parties ... Our reports are designed to be provocative and to stimulate discussion," the group says.

The group has drawn up a Swot (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis of the Law Society and the legal profession, which challenges not only the populist, "trade unionist" approach of the new president, but the comfortable, complacent-seeming establishment of the Law Society.

Its critical gaze has produced the following:

Strengths:

l The society remains the major delegated statutory authority for solicitors.

l It retains 100 per cent membership despite all threats.

l Improved performance and experience in many fields in the past five years.

l It is the largest legal professional governing body in Europe and the envy of many others.

l A respected authority on law reform and other matters on which it is consulted.

Weaknesses:

l Relationship between the society and members has apparently worsened, focusing attention on (poor) communication with the membership and the accountability of the society to members.

l Failure to lift rapidly the regulatory burden; it is essential to introduce self-regulation and regulation by firms where this is possible.

l The press and public image of solicitors is dominated by the image of high-earning City firms.

l An increased polarisation between City and high-street practitioners.

l An expensive, unpopular and burdensome complaints procedure, disliked by the profession and consumers.

l The society's failure to respond to the profession because resources are limited, and lines and methods of communication are poor.

l Failure to make progress towards working with and eventually subsuming the Bar and its work.

l The society's services are too often planned on the basis that there will be a constant base of income. This assumes that the profession as a whole will continue to pay basic fees; this assumption could be wrong.

l Poor accountability of the society's basic structures.

l Failure of the society to develop more successful quasi-commercial ventures and to market both the profession and the society sufficiently well.

l The profession's failure to respond quickly to consumer demands; information on charging; quality and consistency of service; communication skills.

l Many small units of practice which are vulnerable to competition or can lead to poor management and standards leading to complaints and possible failure.

Opportunities:

l If and when the time is right, to take over or offer services to other regulatory bodies.

l Develop alternative strategies for the Bar; to work with the Bar, to erode the Bar's monopoly; to utilise the superior facilities of the society to work with or take over the Bar.

l Make multidisciplinary practices attractive to solicitors.

l Reduce the costs of the society to the solicitor by slimming down or hiving off.

l Encourage better practice management techniques in the profession.

l Develop the concept of self-financing of services to reduce or cease subsidy of the minority in the profession by the majority.

l Direct policies and democratic structures to represent not only solicitors in private practice but also those in employment.

l Take the lead in setting up a European Lawyers' Association.

l Identify a role for the society on law and justice issues.

l Review how other professional bodies have reacted or are reacting to the polarisation of their profession into regulatory and representational roles.

Threats:

l A non-unified profession in the future. The challengers are: multidisciplinary practices (accountants) and American firms. Possible threats from probate practitioners, licensed conveyancers, paralegals. These bodies may poach members because they offer a quicker and cheaper route to qualification. This will reduce income support and influence, with consequential effects on the society's activities.

l From organisations which may in future be authorised to provide legal services and thus be an alternative to the society.

l To Legal Aid, sole practitioner and small practices which rely on single sources of decreasingly remunerative work.

l Lack of ability to unify the profession where necessary, such as to stop some solicitors offering cut-price conveyancing.

l Other regulatory bodies exerting partial control over solicitors.

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