Advocate for the professional middle-classes

Stephen Ward finds the new Law Society leader in fighting form
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The Independent Online
Martin Mears, the solicitors' new leader, is anxious not be seen as an old-style trade union boss. When he was a young man in the 1970s the unions were the class enemy.

"I remember sitting round the table with bankers and accountants and other professionals during the miners' strike, when there were power cuts and the three-day week. We all felt the miners had too much power."

However, Mr Mears is displaying many of the characteristics of a Joe Gormley, who led the miners in two successful pay strikes in the early 1970s, a decade before Arthur Scargill's struggle in 1984. Mr Gormley argued that miners' wages had been eroded and should be restored and he won with a combination of public sympathy and industrial muscle.

Mr Mears has been elected by the beleaguered small-firm sector of the solicitors' profession to reverse the decline of the past 15 years and to resist further government encroachments on their position.

He has promised to deliver higher conveyancing fees; pledged to use the de facto closed shop to restrict numbers entering the profession; and said he will resist the Government's plan to stop most solicitors doing legal aid work, restricting it to a privileged few firms. Whether through their own fault or not, previous cosily selected Law Society presidents from inside the self-perpetuating ruling elite have failed in all these areas. He is now busy tinkering with the Law Society machinery to make sure he has his "union" under control.

So how is the highly intelligent, but slightly unworldly Mr Mears different from an old-fashioned union boss? Crucially, of course, he lacks industrial muscle - it is inconceivable solicitors taking even as much industrial action as dentists, if only because the profession would never keep ranks.

So the country cannot be held to ransom; if it is to pay more money to its solicitors it has to be by persuasion - to demonstrate a public interest.

Mr Mears is passionate at arguing this case, which he thinks his predecessors failed to make: "I think their attitude in the past was that they've been scared rigid about the consumer lobbies. The general consumerist argument has been that cheapness is invariably to the benefit of the consumer. I deny this is the case when you're talking about professional services."

The argument goes on that the public needs comfortably-off solicitors and doctors and vets and accountants so they stay in business and do not have to cut corners.

"All solicitors know their fees have fallen and fallen and fallen. The inevitable reality is that if you are trying to cope with the same volume of work, you can't afford the service you want to give. I suppose the analogy would be if all dentists were private and there were too many dentists so you had them working all hours."

And after all, he maintains, all he is asking for is a reasonable standard of living. For a typical house sale and purchase, he reasons, a client will pay pounds 4,000 in fees. Most goes to the estate agent, a few hundred pounds in Stamp Duty, pounds 150 in Land Registry fees, and pounds 400 or pounds 500 to the solicitor. The solicitor's portion should rise to pounds 700 or pounds 800, he says. "I don't see that as a terrible burden to the consumer." He accepts conveyancing was too costly in the past, but now it is too cheap, he believes.

But in a political world dominated now by two parties frightened to be seen to attack the market, or to chance anything which might be a vote loser, how can he prevail in his attempts to restore the profession to 1970s prosperity?

He thinks there has been a sea-change in thinking against Thatcherism, which the Government, or a future Labour government, will find it has to heed if it wants to stay popular. Just as 20 years ago there was a consensus that restrictive practices and the state were too strong, now there is a feeling that the pendulum has swung too far the other way and needs to come back.

"I think there's now a reaction against the tooth and claw free market. For example if you privatise the railways and leave it to the market there won't be any country lines. We all know that. Do we want that? No one wants it, so we say, hang on a minute. The market is in general a good thing, but we must draw the line somewhere."

He may have a point. But trade unionists have grown used to having a good case and still not getting what they want.