Law: Are solicitors serving society, or vice versa?: Sharon Wallach reports on this year's Law Society conference in Brighton

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The Independent Online
The Law Society's conference in Brighton which ended last weekend was the swan-song of the 'jolly'. Next year the format will change from a three-day programme of work and play, to a more sober two-day affair. The 1994 conference will be in London; the past decade has seen delegates flying off to Vienna and Brussels.

The theme of this year's conference was 'solicitors serving society'. One well-attended session on stress seemed to indicate that the reverse was not so true. Other discussions focused on pro bono work, criminal justice and competition.

An appeal to solicitors to become more involved in free and charitable work was made by Andrew Phillips, a partner with Bates Wells & Braithwaite and a member of the Law Society's working party on pro bono.

One delegate, however, suggested that this would put across the wrong message to the public and to government. He said that the society would do better to campaign for a comprehensive legal aid system.

Mr Phillips said that pro bono was seen by the working party as complementing legal aid, and that the commercial firms had lost contact with the poorer members of society. The profession could gain by looking at the United States, where the larger firms gave as much as 3 to 5 per cent of their time to free work, he said.

Robert Williams, a former partner at Linklaters & Paines, said that solicitors were already doing much in the way of pro bono work, as well as donating cash to advice centres. But solicitors were reluctant to braodcast their efforts, he maintained, calling it a 'missed public relations opportunity'.

The conference fringe was as active as ever. Those interested in making the most of the media, at a session organised by the society's press and parliamentary unit, learned in passing that in the radio programme The Archers, Susan Carter will go to prison.

A fringe session on training contracts concluded that radical steps were needed if large numbers of legal practice course (LPC) graduates were not to end up on the scrap heap. One solution, proposed by a former president of the society, Tony Holland, was to abolish articles and to waive the requirements for trainee minimum salaries for the long-term unemployed.

His view was robustly opposed by John Balsdon, the chairman of the trainee solicitors group. He suggested instead a system whereby students could get an LPC place only if they had job offers. But the director of professional standards at the Law Society, John Randall, said that a similar system in Ireland had given rise to students producing false job offers to get on the finals course.

At a workshop session on equal opportunities, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Herman Ouseley, welcomed the Law Society's anti-discrimination measures passed by the council last month as a 'foundation upon which progress can be measured'.

Mr Ouseley warned, however, that the real test was whether words were translated into action. 'The onus is on the Law Society to monitor progress and give a prod every now and then when the profession shows signs of complacency,' he said.

Another fringe session concluded that legislation should be brought in to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of disability. The chairman of the group for solicitors with disabilities, Anne Luttman-Johnson, said that disabled people were particularly badly affected by the unemployment situation.

Efforts by the Government to improve the situation through education were failing, she said, adding: 'The time is now right for anti- discrimination legislation'.

Panellists in the first of two 'question time' sessions chaired by Sir Robin Day were asked about the future of small practices. Were they threatened by current proposals such as management standards and legal aid cuts?

John Hayes, the society's secretary general, said that there was 'no God-given right for there to be 10,000 law firms', but he acknowledged that the cuts in legal aid were creating problems, especially in rural areas.

'The Legal Aid Board will have to be careful if its standards cannot be met except by the very large firms', he said, adding that he had great faith in small firms.

But John Wriglesworth, a housing market analyst, said that there was no need for so many small practices. Customers got a better service from larger firms, he maintained. 'So long as it is competition that is driving the small firms out, I am in favour,' he said.

John Toulmin QC said he was concerned that so many firms had given up private client work. 'The trend is worrying,' he said. 'Just because a firm is larger and more cost-effective does not necessarily mean that we get the advice we need.'

A questioner from the trainee solicitors group asked whether a masters degree, or some other internationally recognised qualification, could be granted to graduates of the legal practice course, in view of the fact that one in three fail to find training contracts.

John Hayes said that the society was considering the issue. 'We are looking at a lot of possibilities,' he said. ' We aim to have a more portable, practical legal practice qualification.'

(Photograph omitted)

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