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Law: The importance of being earnest: Local law societies are trying to improve the image of solicitors. Sharon Wallach reports

SIMON MUMFORD is a self-styled poacher turned gamekeeper. A partner with the Cardiff firm Rausa Mumford, he admits that he was at one time a 'fairly outspoken critic' of the Law Society.

He believed - justifiably, he says - that it lacked guidance and was poorly run. He is now a member of its public relations advisory board (PRAB).' The Law Society has got its act together,' he says. 'Local law societies are involved in decision-making; at last we have a voice.'

The society this week announced the setting-up of a Welsh regional office - a co-operative venture with local law societies. North-Western and Eastern regional offices have been in operation for some time.

'We had always intended extending the regional programme,' says Jonathan Goldsmith, deputy head of the society's communications division. 'There is a commitment in principle by the strategy committee for more regional offices, but their timing is clearly a question of economics.'

Local law societies in England and Wales - there are 127 - are independent of the solicitors' professional body, and are, says Mr Goldsmith, different things in different areas. In the major cities, they tend to be well-funded organisations, with paid staff.

'They handle complaints, run training programmes and conferences, make concerted efforts on issues with public relations and parliamentary angles, and there is almost invariably a social programme too,' Mr Goldsmith says. 'They are very good at replying to consultations on professional policy, and making sure their members' views are heard.'

Medium-sized local societies are also very helpful on professional consultations, usually have social events, and may run training. The very small societies are often no more than social networks for local solicitors, says Mr Goldsmith. According to Mr Mumford, the local societies 'do a vital job and have become far more professional', and he believes they are playing an increasingly important role in promoting a positive image of solicitors.

'People are realising that PR is very important in encouraging the public to see that we are efficient, caring professionals who do a damn good job.'

For the last eight years, he has acted as secretary of Cardiff Law Society, the largest local grouping in Wales and is also its public relations officer. 'So many people have entrenched views about solicitors. My job is to come over as approachable, a caring person who understands problems because he has had them himself.'

He is the 'legal eagle' on Radio Wales' Streetlife programme and a legal spokesman for HTV. 'If I could get a regular contract, I would give up the law,' he says, not entirely in jest. 'It's not an easy time to be a solicitor. You have to work very hard and it's vital that the public sees that most solicitors are not making huge fortunes.'

Mr Mumford joined the PRAB just over a year ago. The role of the board is to co- ordinate and direct the activities of the local law societies' public relations and parliamentary liaison officers (PROs and PLOs). It was set up 18 months ago, with a direct channel to the society's council via the strategy committee, to which it reports on PR, professional and parliamentary issues.

'The aim is, ultimately, for all local MPs to be shadowed by the PLOs, and for there to be one PRO per local radio or TV station or local newspaper,' says Sue Stapely, head of the society's press and parliamentary unit and a member of the PRAB.

Other help offered centrally includes media training and parliamentary liaison advice. PROs are circulated with Law Society press releases - 'if possible before they see them in the national press', Sue Stapely says - and briefings on all parliamentary work with local interest.

Another member of the PRAB is Penny Raby, a partner with the Huddersfield firm Armitage Sykes & Hinchcliffe.

'Things have changed dramatically in the past five years,' she says. 'Then lawyers didn't know the difference between advertising and PR and were negative about both. Now, they are still negative about advertising, but extremely in favour of PR, because they have seen the effect it can have. Lawyers are gradually becoming aware of the need to improve public perception.'

Ms Raby is the PRO for the Yorkshire Union of Law Societies, co-ordinating the PR efforts of the county's societies, and acting as a conduit from and to the Law Society in London. The role of local law societies, she says, is to promote the general image of solicitors, rather than that of a specific firm or type of lawyer.

The importance of improving public perceptions is what drew Catherine Iliff to the world of local law society public relations. 'I became involved because solicitors get such a bad press and I feel very strongly about it,' says Ms Iliff, a partner with the Norwich firm Fosters.

'You don't hear much about solicitors putting in a lot of work and long hours and doing a good job. As a profession, we are good at hiding our lantern.'

Local law societies have a dual role, Ms Iliff believes. 'They co-ordinate and disseminate information for solicitors, make representations to the central Law Society,' she says. 'They also co-ordinate local needs and express opinions, both to the Law Society and to the local press.'

Andrew Shaw is a partner with the London firm Baileys Shaw & Gillett. He doubles as parliamentary and press officer for Holborn Law Society, which has some 1,000 members.

'A local law society is a quasi trade union,' he says, 'as well as an arena for monitoring developments and changes in the law, and passing on members' responses to relevant bodies.

'We also offer administrative help to the Law Society, following up cases of failure to renew practising certificates, for instance.'

Together with the neighbouring City and Westminster societies, Holborn runs training seminars. It also attempts to place people in articles, and circulates information about jobs for assistant solicitors. In common with other local societies, Holborn undertakes pro bono work, in this case as a trustee of the local Mary Ward Centre, a law centre near Great Ormond Street. Mr Shaw's own firm is among those sending trainee solicitors to work at the centre.

Mr Shaw is appreciative of the support offered by the PRAB, citing in particular the media training. 'It is very helpful,' he says. 'We all have to learn to communicate with the public far better than we do now.'

(Photograph omitted)