All done for the common good
13 June 1995
To blame the Law Society for not pre-empting the Government's changes to legal aid and for not guiding the profession through the technological revolution which ultimately will reshape legal services is a waste of time and resources. It would be far better if the candidates in the presidential elections concentrated on bringing the various branches of the legal profession together to focus on our service to the public and thereby improve the bottom line.
The creation of a Law Society pro bono unit, following on naturally from the Law Society pro bono working party and its report, would achieve just that.
The main objection to the creation of such a unit is the perception that formalising pro bono would give the government of the day an excuse to cut back on legal aid which would affect the income of law firms. This view is completely mistaken.
First, the Government does not need an excuse like pro bono to cut back on legal aid as the publication of the Lord Chancellor's consultation paper 'Legal aid - targeting need' proves. All that is required is a £35 billion deficit.
Second, the case for legal aid is best supported by setting up a Law Society pro bono unit proving the society's sincerity in widening access to legal services and its belief that legal work should be conducted by qualified legal professionals.
Third, a Law Society pro bono unit would seek to tidy up what might become a messy and disorganised area of work by assuring that pro bono legal advice clinics, for example, did a legal aid check on all clients referring eligible clients to local legal aid firms.
Finally, legal aid lawyers do too much pro bono work already and would not be expected to do one more minute of pro bono work and would be net beneficiaries of such a unit.
Why is this a case? Because, pro bono work must have benefits otherwise it does not have a future in an increasingly competitive world.
For legal aid lawyers, the benefits would be new ways of delivering legal services, for example preventive law techniques, and practical help in obtaining a legal aid franchise using tested management methods.
For non-legal aid lawyers there would be help on the best ways of organising pro bono work and recognition in qualifying hours for the professional skills course and continuing legal education.
These benefits would be communicated in a magazine and through electronic media which would be free to all lawyers.
Considerable preparatory work has already been done for such a unit including obtaining the support from consumer and legal advice organisations, City and legal aid lawyers and
tapping the experience of those in the US.
Funding has also been found. Even the Bar Council has come out in favour of such a unit.
The Law Society Council and its staff have been aware of these developments throughout the end of last year and the beginning of this one as have key members of the legal press. The society stands alone.
All the candidates have also been made aware of the following possible solution which would benefit all parties including, for once, the members.
Martin Mears, Eileen Pembridge and Robert Sayer should withdraw their candidatures immediately, on condition that their key points of recognition of the plight of legal aid law firms and the need for increased help in guiding law firms through the technological jungle into increased areas of profitability be taken up. Greater flexibility for women who want families and careers should be actively encouraged. And a Law Society Pro Bono Unit should be set up forthwith.
In return, Mears would be asked to sit on the steering committee of the pro bono unit, Sayer would sit on the editorial committee of the magazine and Pembridge would be asked to represent the Law Society on a UK charity which it is hoped will be set up as part of a large fund-raising project for the Olympics. Given her previous background she might well be asked to represent the Law Society as the forthcoming United Nations conference on women in China.
Henry Hodge and his team would have a clear run in to office, Charles Elly would be allowed to complete his presidential term in peace without the discourteous, implied criticism of his period in office brought about by the various candidates' points.
And money would not be wasted on an election, in which I doubt whether most members care about the outcome.
The real winners will be the public and the lawyers who serve them - the people who should come first every time.
Tony Michaelson Yeates is a solicitor.