More trying times ahead

The Law Society could be in for a long, hot summer and a possible repeat of last year's bad-tempered elections.
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The Independent Online
In the previously genteel world of the law, an already simmering internecine battle is set to flare up. This summer is likely to see a showdown between the two diametrically opposed, openly hostile groups who each claim to represent the interests and wishes of ordinary solicitors. The issue is likely to be resolved (at least temporarily) by a rerun of last year's unprecedented and bad-tempered Law Society elections.

The catalyst for this unseemly squabbling is in the shape of the previously unknown Great Yarmouth solicitor Martin Mears and his sidekick Robert Sayer. Mr Mears and Mr Sayer did the unthinkable last year, when they stood against the society's officially endorsed candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency, respectively, forcing a general election within the profession. The duo's manifesto was simple: the society had become too big and too dictatorial; it should return to putting the interests of its members first and last. The size of their subsequent victory indicated strong support for such a shamelessly trade union approach, which was a reversal of the "enlightened self-interest" the socicty had adopted in recent years.

Now, however, Mr Mears's claim to speak for the rank and file - 11,000 of whom voted for him last year - is being challenged. A "Campaign for New Leadership" of the society has been launched by a group of 20 solicitors from around the country with the sole aim of getting shot of Mr Mears and Mr Sayer

Kevin Martin, the campaign chairman, who hails from a two-partner firm near Coventry, says: "We are exactly the sort of people who might be perceived as typical Mears supporters - but we're not and, with one exception, never have been."

The group is urging candidates to come forward to oppose Mr Mears and Mr Sayer in an election this year. Mr Martin claims that, since taking office a year ago, the pair have wasted the profession's money, achieved nothing and generated the worst spate of bad publicity in the society's history.

Mr Mears, however, is undaunted by the development. He scoffs at the group's claim to be what he terms "ordinary housewives". They are not grassroots at all but "establishment hacks" and "local Law Society groupies", he says. Mr Mears bases his conclusion on the fact that, according to him, at least two of them are past presidents or secretaries of local law societies, one is a governor of the College of Law and another "had some media training here recently".

While his logic here may be somewhat hard to follow, it is true that the campaign may not be quite the spontaneous uprising of the proletariat it claims to be. The material it is circulating smacks of having sources from within Chancery Lane, and it would be naive to believe Mr Mears's Law Society foes have had no hand in its formation.

This is something apparently tacitly acknowledged by Kevin Martin. "We are the tip of the iceberg. The opposition to Mears covers a very considerable spectrum of the profession, which does mean there are some people involved who are more 'Establishment' than we are."

Not, of course, that there is necessarily anything wrong with putting at the forefront of the campaign those who may best be able to fight Mr Mears on the "grassroots" turf he has tried to make his own.

However, the real test of whether the Campaign for New Leadership is, in fact, a campaign for a return to the old leadership will largely depend on exactly who steps forward to oppose Mr Mears. Mr Martin says there are a number of candidates whom the campaign would be happy to endorse, one of whom is the current deputy vice-president, Tony Girling.

Whatever Mr Girling's undoubted abilities, there are fears in some quarters that he will be an easy opponent for Mr Mears to pick off. A long-standing and senior council member, Mr Girling is bound to suffer from guilt by association with the old regime. Given that he was the council's nominee for the deputy vice-presidency last year (when he declared that he looked forward to implementing council policics "which we know are sound"), he will inevitably be labelled a creature of the council. As one observer says, his candidature may be taken as proof that the society wants to ignore the widespread unhappiness Mr Mears's election has exposed and return to business as usual. Buggins is back, in other words.

This is something that Kevin Martin acknowledges, but he insists that "just because someone appears to be Buggins doesn't mean he isn't the right man for the job".

Whoever does eventually stand, the election campaign is likely to be bloody. We have already had a taster of what to expect in the shape of a bizarre and probably libellous "election briefing" paper, sent anonymously to some newspaper offices. Among other things, the paper purports to reveal the innermost thoughts of Mr Mears's potential opponents. (It insists, for example that a leading council member, whom it names, has "undergone a personality change" and "instead of being amiable and shrewd is now petulant and odd".)

Although the paper has been universally condemned, one society insider warns to expect more of the same. "There is a kind of anarchy setting in," he says.

If that is the case, the victor may find himself presiding over a rather smaller Law Society than might have been hoped. The City, which has traditionally been indifferent to the activities of the society, is "at the end of its patience", according to one of its number. "There is a lot of talk at the moment about big City firms getting their own insurance and regulating themselves, if the Law Society doesn't pull itself together," she says.

Of course, it is still not clear if there will be an election at all. Mr Mears, however, insists that if he is defeated, he will be a gracious loser. If the victor is an "outsider president", Mr Mears would do for his successor what nobody did for him when he took office, and try to warn him of potential pitfalls. "And then I would stand against him the following year," he adds.