City giants, legal aid firms and high street solicitors all come under the umbrella of the Law Society of England and Wales. Will they agree on its future?

A COSTLY and irrelevant bureaucracy or a strong voice and defender of the solicitors? profession? This Thursday the Law Society council kicks off debate on the future of the 150-year-old body that represents nearly 100,000 solicitors in England and Wales.

At stake is whether the society should survive, in what shape and what it should do for the solicitors who fund it. Reforms to be brought forward in the Government?s Legal Services Bill in early summer have already led to a shake-up, with the society hiving off its regulation and complaints handling to new boards so that they are managed at ?arm?s length?. That leaves the ?rump? of the society with trade-union and law-reform roles. With the profession now four times the size it was 35 years ago, and an ever-widening gap between the corporate giants and the legal aid firms, what do solicitors want?

Views are already emerging ? not least that solicitors do have an opinion on the issue. Already 15,000 have replied to the ?Have Your Say? consultation (www.haveyoursaylawsociety.org.uk) that ends on April 21. Their views are likely to chime with a recent NOP survey of both individuals and firms? representatives showing that four in five wanted reform, but 91 per cent also wanted a strong national voice to service and lobby for the profession. 
 
Who will pay? Four in five solicitors believe that they should pay for at least some of the society?s representative work; but they want a slimmed-down, leaner machine ? a society that is more efficient, more responsive and decisive. The society has 1,371 staff and is expected to cost ?124 million in 2006-07: ?33 million on professional services, ?35 million on complaints, ?56 million on regulation.

Solicitors wanted results soon, favouring changes to be evident within 18 months. City solicitors ? whom many feared would jump ship, preferring to use their own City of London Law Society ? also want to keep a national voice. They appreciate the society?s lobbying to open up markets oversees or on money laundering and company reform.

But only one in five law firms felt that all its needs was being met and 40 per cent felt ?few or none? of their needs were being met. A sizeable 37 per cent thought the society too expensive. The present cost, through the practising certificate fee, is ?1,020. The aim for this November is to reduce the fee to ?950 but 34 per cent thought that still too high. Perhaps more worrying, 47 per cent said that if membership of the new-style society was voluntary, they would not join. Another 31 per cent said that this would depend on cost.

There are several key questions:

  1. if a national body for solicitors is to stay, should it be more of a federal association with the administration acting as an umbrella body?
  2. should solicitors be grouped by area of work ? such as family or personal injuries ? rather than locality?
  3. should solicitors pay a mandatory fee to cover the trade union-law reform work?
  4. should the society?s buildings be sold, and if so, which?
  5. and which functions or sections can be scrapped?

Janet Paraskeva, the outgoing chief executive, whose job is to be split three ways, has outlined her thoughts in a paper to the council on the qualities that set the society apart from other bodies. Uncontroversially, she says that the society should be the profession?s ?collective voice?. It should be in business primarily to ?meet the needs and wants of the profession?. And the public, or consumers of legal services, should be its ?secondary customers?, where meeting their needs was of benefit to the profession or where it was the ?right thing? for the profession to do in the public interest.

?Some 91 per cent of the survey wanted an organisation to be its national representative,? she said. ?We take encouragement from that. Also, in surveys such as this, if 30 per cent are getting what they need from the society ? that, we are told, is a very good figure.?

The society, she argues, is the only body representing the entire profession and promoting respect for the ?brand? of solicitor; it is the profession?s voice on regulation and on issues of principle such as on the independence of lawyers and upholding the rule of law. And it was the focus for professional campaigns over legal reform and new laws.

But the whole empire is under scrutiny. ?It?s a very exciting time and we will have to look at everything and see if it is wanted. If not, there will have to be some courageous decisions. There must be efficiencies, much more transparency ? so that we give solicitors value for money.? The cost-cutting will extend also to buildings; the famous Chancery Lane headquarters, plus all regional buildings, are under review and if too expensive, could be sold, she said.

?We will listen to what people say and unless there is a good reason, do what they want.? 

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