A think-tank is the solution
17 September 1996
The Law Society has been seen as an easy scapegoat on which to blame the perilous state of the High Street law firm. But the reasons for the problems being faced by many practices are far more complex. Basically too many solicitors are chasing too little work for which they are inadequately qualified.
And if the criticism of the society is that it has failed to stop law firms becoming increasingly vulnerable, a moment's thought will confirm that, as a profession, we are probably no worse off than doctors, accountants or surveyors.
What we do offer is a unique level of protection to our clients. I believe we have never made the most of this as a marketing message, although this is certainly one of the Law Society's responsibilities.
But lawyers must remember that the Law Society doesn't exist to nanny us to prosperity. It can, as one of a number of bodies, facilitate the conditions in which those with a thirst for success will prosper. But nothing it can or could do will guarantee success or prosperity.
For example, to boost the conveyancing market, I believe it is essential to find a way of steering the public to the more competent and client-friendly among our number.
How can we identify to the public the firms on whom they can rely? The only method which could be adopted relatively easily would be to identify standards of practice in conveyancing on which most in the profession would agree.
These should cover adherence to the National Conveyancing Protocol, the new lenders' handbook and the PMS, as well as including a specification for handling conveyancing competently.
Once the standards are agreed, those solicitors who signed up for them and were successfully audited could then be marketed as quality firms.
A second area in which the Law Society could help create the conditions for prosperity is in helping to improve the profession's relations with lenders. Part of the lenders' handbook project is to set up the conditions in which solicitors will once again be paid for lenders' work.
That we are generally not paid now is due to our lack of commercial nous as a profession. It was we who allowed the separate charge for mortgage work to fall into disuse, so we are not in a strong negotiating position in trying to recover this ground.
The lenders are setting the conditions for the reclaiming of this prize, and have linked it to the achievement of standard procedures. The society's aim is to agree a benchmark for a fee for acting for lenders which the OFT will not challenge.
Panels of competent and client-friendly firms under the profession's control should also be introduced as a way of diverting the drift to restricted lenders' panels, as well as improving the profitability of those firms which join them.
One final thought on the Law Society's role. I believe it is in the profession's interests for the society to be innovative and to stimulate thinking about the future. There is more to its activities than doing things which involve regulatory or trade union matters.
The intrusion of party politics into the society's affairs last year reduced its freedom to undertake pioneering thinking. It is too early to know whether politics is here to stay; I fear it may be. The society may therefore have to continue to be more cautious than is desirable, if it is not constantly to be subject to attacks from the profession's politicians.
But the legal profession needs innovative thinking and pioneering pilots. If the society cannot produce that itself, other institutions will have to fill the gap. Legal affairs need its own think-tank.