The outsider who laid down the law

Goings-on at the Law Society have come to resemble a slapstick sideshow. Spats, walkouts, slanging matches - and all because a mild-mannered country solicitor decided to take on the metropolitan bigwigs. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
Lawyers are going down in the world. Less than a decade ago, the appointed president of the Law Society, the profession's representative body, was automatically knighted at the end of his year in office. It was a fitting culmination to a twelvemonth of genteel flesh-pressing and throat-clearing and exercising of ceremonial functions, all within the splendidly pompous purlieu of the Society's headquarters at the bottom of Chancery Lane, guarded by a large number of small, gilded, effeminate- looking lions, perched on posts.

The purlieu is as pompous as ever, the lions gleam as bright. But if the place were garlanded in dirty laundry it would be more appropriate. The society of gentlemen is no more: replaced by an embryonic trade union, fighting for control of the organisation. Like Moscow in 1917, the place is in permanent uproar. "It's doings read more like a soap opera than real life," declared the Legal Action Group News in disgust. Key staff have left, most recently the head of public relations, after a bitter public feud with the president. The citadel has already fallen, but out in the sticks even more bloody-minded radicals are plotting, bent on severing the organisation in two.

All this excitement impinges on the outside world for two reasons. First, nobody can resist a bareknuckle brawl, and when all involved belong to a profession as feared and loathed loathed as lawyers - why, it's second best only to watching the National Association of Estate Agents going up in smoke.

But there is another reason for paying attention. At the heart of the wrangling is the question of how much lawyers should charge. If the new regime at the Law Society had its way, conveyancing charges for the work solicitors do when people buy and sell property - which, with deregulation, have fallen steadily over the past 10 years - would rocket back to their former levels.

The smiling, rubicund man at the heart of this unprecedented farrago is a lawyer with a practice in Great Yarmouth called Martin Mears, who stormed in from the backwoods two years ago and got himself elected on to the Society's ruling Council (having first established that this could legally be done - until then, nobody had presumed to try). Last year, in the first presidential election the Society had held for 40 years, he became the organisation's titular head.

Unlike earlier incumbents, Mr Mears has at his present rate of progress as much chance of getting knighted as you or me: but he stands a considerably better chance of being elected president for a second year, which is what he wants. If so, it will be the first time such a thing has happened in the society's 150 year history.

Mr Mears is the voice of the small high street lawyer, dependant largely on bread and butter work like conveyancing, for whom the past few years have been a catalogue of disasters. Until the mid-80s, solicitors had a monopoly of conveyancing work, and prices were fixed according to a scale of fees. Then the scale and the monopoly were both abolished, but house sales soared so solicitors continued to prosper, even though charges continued to fall. But when the recession hit, the realisation dawned that the profession of gentlemen, its privileges hacked away, was set to become pauperised.

If you want to offend Martin Mears, try using the expression "fat cats". It makes him livid. And you can see why. Large numbers of so-called "sole practitioners" have gone out of business since the start of the recession. Twenty-five per cent of those that remain are said by the Society to earn less than pounds 10,000 per year, once they have paid certification charges, indemnity insurance and other substantial sums demanded by the Society. One quarter of all partners in two- to four- partner firms earn less than pounds 24,000 per year. Even Clare Short would think twice before sticking them with supertax.

Martin Mears is the leading representative of a huge tide of anger within the profession, which sees its comfortable status rapidly eaten away. That anger is directed unambiguously at the Law Society, because of its dual functions: it both represents the members' interests, and regulates their activities. As Mears and his followers saw it, the Society's "establishment", preoccupied with regulations, kowtowing to government and enforcing politically correct shibboleths, had failed to notice that the people whose fees kept the place going were screaming with pain.

Mears was elected after a startlingly venomous three-month long election campaign a year ago, but he has so far failed utterly to do any of the drastic things - such as raising conveyancing charges or forcing a government rethink of legal aid reform - for which he was elected. The reason is, he says, the bitter resistance of the society's council, the great majority of whom are opposed to him. "It's like having a Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress," he says modestly. As a result, as often happens in Washington, too, the Society's activities are stymied.

But those of Mr Mears's persuasion have not given up hope. The latest wheeze, formulated by a lawyer in Bournemouth called John Edge, is to execute a sort of putsch, get the entire council thrown out of office, and start again with a clean slate. Legal opinion solicited by Mr Edge is that constitutionally this is do-able. Edge also wants to slice the Society in two, dividing permanently the regulatory and trade union functions.

"Martin Mears has done an awful lot of good," he says. "At the end of the day I expect he will be seen as the saviour of the legal profession. He's being continually frustrated by the attitude of the staff at the Society, who are not used to seeing wholesale reform, and the old guard on the council, who keep hoping he'll go away. What he has drawn attention to is that the Society is incapable of representing the interests of solicitors."

One reason for this incapability is that the Society is legally obliged to act in the public interest. So beyond throwing out the council and severing the Society in two, Edge has another, yet more radical notion: to start afresh with a brand new body, which he started with a few friends a fortnight ago, called The Solicitors' Association. If it gets off the ground, Edge hopes it will assume the Society's representative function.

Although on his own admission Mears has achieved practically nothing to date, he has changed the climate inside the Society. "There was a lot of consternation among the council members and staff at the way he broke with tradition," says an insider. "But now it's recognised publicly that democracy is a good thing."

Whether it's a good thing for the customers, too, is another matter. According to Tony Holland, former president of the Society who resigned from the Council on the day Mears won the election, what is happening to the Society is "pretty tragic".

"In the past it was very much a gentleman's profession, and the Law Society was pretty amateurish. Then in the mid-80s the new secretary general brought in much greater professionalism. We ran with the consumerist position. Till then law was a luxury, expensive, uninclined to change, unwilling to cheapen. We wanted to change all that: I thought that clients should be told upfront what it would cost. There are three things customers want to know: how much? How long? and, Will I win? In the past they never got answers to any. It's true that in complex actions it's difficult to say, but solicitors have to make a stab at it."

Holland and his fellow-reformers put through regulations bringing such a state of affairs closer to actuality - but in identifying so closely with the customer, ended up alienating the members.

Holland - who is also a country lawyer, with a practice in Plymouth - is deeply gloomy about Mears and his manifesto. "All they want to do is turn the clock back," he says. "But what they want to do can't be done: they can't bring back scale fees for conveyancing, they can't restrict entry to the profession [which they want to do as a way of preventing fees from falling even further]."

What Martin Mears can do, however, is continue to make the Law Society the most improbable cabaret in town. The next scheduled performance will be elections for the council in June. After that, warns John Edge, "All hell will break loose." And laughs a deep, sinister laugh.