Law: Why it's good to talk: Sharon Wallach reports on moves by the Law Society to improve its communication with smaller firms

The Law Society can't win. It is the solicitors' professional body, and those it represents range from the City heavyweight to the general practitioner. It is criticised by each end of the spectrum for concentrating on the needs of the other. To make matters worse, it has both a regulatory - some say over-regulatory - and a representative and advisory function.

Now the society has resolved to answer some of its critics with a programme aimed at supporting the high street. More than 8,100 firms - 95 per cent of the profession - have less than 10 partners. These firms constitute the backbone of the profession, according to the Law Society's president, Charles Elly. 'They are the point of contact between most members of the the public and solicitors,' he says.

Research published by the society this week highlights a major communications breakdown between those firms and their professional body. Half of the respondents to a postal survey felt they were poorly informed about the support and services offered by the society. However, those who had used society services were largely satisfied. The quality of communication by the society was categorised as poor by nearly half of sole practitioners and a quarter of four- or five-partner firms.

One step on the way to better communications is a two-year plan of roadshows, to which every member of the profession will be invited. 'We will explain our services and listen to the concerns members express to us,' Mr Elly says. 'I believe we will get in touch with a lot of members who appear to have got out of touch.' Informal meetings are also planned.

A communications audit will also be undertaken, beginning with the Gazette, the society's main channel of communication, Mr Elly says. The journal is well- written and informative, but the problem is that many lawyers don't read it, or at least not immediately.

'Our message has to be both effective and cost-effective,' Mr Elly says, citing the common complaint by members that they frequently receive two or more letters from the society in separate envelopes on any one day.

Andrew Lockley, head of the society's legal practice directorate responsible for co-ordinating the work with the high street firms, talks of the paradox behind the communication breakdown. 'A lot of information is flowing out from here,' he says, 'but a lot of it is not being absorbed. We have to make it more attractive and find ways of making solicitors take it in.'

The society has created the post of high street firms consultant, and the deputy vice-president, Henry Hodge, is to focus on the needs of those firms over the coming two years.

Mr Hodge is a high street practitioner at Hodge Jones & Allen in north London. He says: 'I am reasonably well-placed to upgrade the belief that the Law Society does care about high street solicitors, who are key players in a decent society.'

There has been a change in the way the profession views the Law Society, according to Mr Hodge. There is no longer the dread there was in the 1960s when a letter from the society arrived.

'Over the past 10 to 15 years, a huge effort and a lot of cash have gone into providing wide-ranging services,' Mr Hodge says. 'Now, we are regulating on the one hand and promoting, advising and helping on the other. The interface is a bit uncomfortable for some members. There is something in the culture that says this organisation is not going to be deeply loved by all its members.

'When I set up my firm in the late Seventies I asked the society what I needed to do. The answer was: 'Keep the solicitors' accounts rules'. Now there is a vast range of services, although obviously not needed by everyone all the time.'

Mr Lockley points out that the society does not go on providing services for which there is no demand. 'We must do constant market research, that's clear from the survey,' he says.

The major concerns of high street practitioners includes narrow or non-existent profit margins (particularly in conveyancing and legal aid work), over-regulation, not enough Law Society support geared to their needs, and inadequate public recognition of the social importance of smaller practices. It is clear the society has its hands full if it is to satisfy these concerns and sort out its communication problems with the vast majority of the profession.

(Photograph omitted)

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