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Have legal jamborees had their day? - September-06-12
Source: The Times - Law
The failure to relaunch a prestige event raises a number of difficult issues, says Jonathan Ames
Only a year ago the Law Society of England and Wales trumpeted the return of its annual conference — after a hiatus of several years — in an attempt to convince sceptical solicitors that they need the trade union as much as it needs them.
By last Friday the event was cancelled, less than three weeks before it was to be held, with officials blaming “geography” rather than a lack of interest. Lawyers are asking not just about the purpose of such events but whether the 187-year-old society is up to the task of representing them in a world dominated by cross-border legal practice at one end and alternative business structures that could lead to high street law firms being swallowed up by retail chains at the other.
The aborted Law Conference 2012 had a bizarre genesis. Ostensibly aimed at high-end City law firms and senior corporate in-house lawyers, the organisers chose a venue 135 miles west of the Square Mile — Celtic Manor golf resort in Newport, Gwent. It was not an obvious choice for a brass tacks business law conference pitched at time-sensitive City lawyers.
The Chancery Lane organisers had hoped to attract at least 300 delegates. But for some weeks the grapevine suggested that the conference was going to struggle to put together many foursomes for the course. In the end, officials blamed the distance. “It has become clear that the geographical location presented something of an obstacle to the intended audience,” a spokesman for the society said. It hopes to run a revised conference next spring in London.
It is not the first Law Society conference blighted by controversy. Thirteen years ago the society staged a Law Festival at Disneyland Paris. While the event provided entertainment for those attending, lawyers stuck in offices back home viewed it as frivolous. “It was a disaster,” one council member says. Other (some quixotic) venues include: Glasgow, Brussels and Vienna.
So is this another knock to the reputation of an organisation that has seen a succession of controversies or just a sign that lawyers want something different? The crucial issue is the society’s relevance to practitioners, whether in the City, Canary Wharf or Rotherham.
“The first thing the Law Society needs to do,” Christopher Digby-Bell, a recently elected council member for the City, says, “is become more representative. This year, my council seat election was the only contested election — every other existing council member had no one standing against him or her.”
Digby-Bell, a director and general counsel at Palmer Capital, has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the council. This summer he unseated the former Chancery Lane president David McIntosh to take the City seat. But he claims that his election experience is rare because, over the past seven years, almost no council members have had to fight elections. “That may well be a huge relief to many, but I don’t think it is a healthy thing,” Digby-Bell says. “It demonstrates that the interest that local law societies and individual solicitors have in their national council is not what it should be. It is difficult for most council members to say that they meaningfully represent their constituents.”
Denis Cameron, who first took the Central Lancashire and Northern Greater Manchester constituency in 1999, says that the Law Society had become complacent. “It used to have a captive audience — solicitors had no option but to pay up. But now that is beginning to change. And everyone involved at the society is looking over their shoulders thinking how are we going to keep the cash flowing to keep the representative side going? The money we now get from the practising certificate is likely always to be under attack, with a strong likelihood that it will be diminished or disappear.”
At the moment, most of the society’s funding comes from a portion of the practising certificate fee that the Legal Services Board — the profession’s umbrella regulator — deems should be allocated to representation. But Chancery Lane fears that ultimately the board — potentially under pressure from the independent Solicitors Regulation Authority — could turn a harsh eye towards that arrangement.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society, is acutely aware of the dilemma. “It may happen that the Law Society one day will have to fight for its own funding, so we are committed to developing our commercial activities because that will be money for us to use in any way that suits our members.”
But the success of commercial activities will depend on the ability of Chancery Lane to appeal to solicitors. Scott-Moncrieff — who has been on the council for ten years — is confident. “When I joined the council the regulatory function always prevailed over the representative function. Now we’ve been freed up to be able to represent our members. Different parts of the membership have different needs — I’m heavily involved in access to justice issues and supporting smaller firms. But we are also involved in providing services to our commercial City members that they can’t do for themselves.”
She cites a forthcoming joint trade mission to Brazil with the Lord Mayor of London, as well as recently attending the annual conferences of the American and Canadian Bar associations. “The solicitors’ profession and the Law Society are held in enormously high esteem around the world,” she says. Ultimately, though, what will dictate the survival of Chancery Lane is the esteem of lawyers at home.
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