An open letter to the profession
13 February 1996
It is always difficult to know when to blow the whistle publicly. For many in the profession this piece of mine will be heretical and arrant nonsense; for others (perhaps more at the epicentre) it will be a long overdue exposure. For most, perhaps, it will simply be another milestone on the road to realisation.
The text is: Martin Mears is not the new broom, the breath of fresh air, the sacker of Chancery Lane and saviour of the profession that many hoped and wanted to believe he would be. He is, on the contrary, seriously bad news for us all.
I have never been an unconditional fan of the society and I can usually spot a case of the emperor's new clothes when I come across one. I stood for president last year against John Young because I felt it was truly outrageous that the system (Buggins turn) should prevail over the circumstances.
I start, therefore, from the premise that society reform and revitalisation are long overdue. The council is too middle-aged, too self employed and too male orientated to be truly representative of our profession. What is good is that the upsets of last summer have fired the spirit of many council members to make the society more responsive, attractive and effective.
There is a realisation among us that whatever we were doing right we did not get our message across and whatever we were doing wrong has been rightly castigated. Council reconvened in September in humbled but expectant mood. The profession was cock-a-hoop that it had cocked a snook and expectations were riding high.
Maybe it was because I spent three months on the hustings with him, but it was plain to me from the outset that Martin was not going to be the answer to the profession's or the society's malaise. He could attack but he could not build. He could sneer but not encourage. He was forceful, determined to win - yes. But he is not a man of charisma, vision or positive forward thinking. He is not, in short, a leader.
The profession thought or hoped otherwise. Better a new broom from East Anglia than the (replacement) official candidate, tainted with the approval of a discredited council, or an upstart woman with doubtless a scary hidden agenda. To be fair, it was obvious that some of Martin's inefficacy would flow from the lack of significant leadership or committee experience of either himself or his similarly elected vice-president, Robert Sayer.
Running a large organisation dealing with an expert civil service, leading and inspiring colleagues, and chairing a large council are skills which take experience and maturity to acquire. Martin and Robert may have set about this alert to both the steep learning curve and to visions for positive change, but have not paid heed to either.
What has happened is that Martin has become ever more preoccupied with those he sees as enemies, which renders him ineffectual as an agent of change. First, as he said to me at the moment of this election he was going to "get John Hayes". Then other senior staff were drawn into the net until he now decries all of them.
Rumblings have already reached the letter columns of The Gazette as to the enormous demoralisation apparent among the staff; the truth is worse than that. They are frustrated and fearful. Their time and efforts are wasted; it is increasingly difficult for them to undertake their jobs or keep their teams together. They are attacked by both Robert and Martin in the press and in letters to us. Many will doubtless go soon. Those of us watching the process helplessly can only wish our president and vice-president would pay regard to the concepts of qualified privilege and constructive dismissal and see the damage being done to the professional body as a whole.
Our council meetings are now a shambles through lack of leadership and partisan intervention. True debate is a thing of the past. We are bombarded before meetings with sardonic prose from one and simplistic wishful thinking from the other. Robert seems to care only about his idea of linking conveyancing fees and indemnity insurance. Martin's main priority seems to be his own re-election. Both posture from the podium, attacking council members and staff alike.
We then go into closed session to defend the staff and plead for restraint and co-operation. Hours of our time are wasted. The last meeting went on late but covered little of the agenda so had to be adjourned to a special extra meeting on 14 February. How can this be saving costs and rooting out inefficiency?
Worse still, the main casualty of recent council meetings has been the burning issue of reform. David Thomas, convinced of the need for a radical overhaul, wrote a paper which came before us last autumn. Most of us are longing to get stuck into this topic but it has been apparent from the outset that Martin and Robert are the main opponents. They seem to shy away from any moves to render the society more responsive and council members more effectual; to prefer their ad hoc groups, working parties and plan to have a poodle for a secretary general. They want to write their own papers for the profession and be in charge of everything. They have even sought to disregard the terms of reference of the working parties endorsed at the last AGM. They appeal to the electorate to oust fellow council members and expect staff to work only to their demands and ignore its dual role of serving the council.
In the long term this stratagem is doomed to fail, but as we live through its worst manifestations I can see resentment rising on all sides at the arrogance and incompetence of it all. Never, in fact, has this motley council been so united in its readiness for change or so outspoken in its condemnation of hypocrisy.
Last autumn's goodwill and desire to show the profession that it had a new willingness to do things differently, to reflect the wish of the majority who voted, has turned into an agony of soul searching as to what to do for the best.
The dilemma is this: in the present climate of fear and distrust, one should be fearless, speak out against injustice and stand up to be counted. The right thing to do, therefore, is to oppose Martin's and Robert's desire for a second term and support candidates who will have the skills and strength to capture the popular imagination and start the true reform process.
However, this will condemn the society and thus the profession to several weeks or months of bitter, all-absorbing electioneering with the incumbents going ever more over the top and insults flying.
But can we stand back and let Martin and Robert have a second term unopposed? Will the relative peace bring any improvement in its wake? Will the extra time simply show up the mess? But is the cost unacceptable? Martin and Robert are now convinced they are blocked and opposed by staff and colleagues alike out of cussedness and conspiracy. They will never see that it is how they behave which stirs indignation and courts opposition. So will the fearless candidate please step forward?
Lest you should think that this is the first shot in a renewed election battle on my part, I hasten to declare my position. I would stand on the same anti-humbug ticket that drove me to it last year, but I will not this year for wholly extraneous reasons.
However, I am not comforted by the knowledge that the passing of time and increased exposure of the electorate to the reality of its choices will bring vindication to those who campaigned against Martin as the answer to anything. The issues before the profession and the need for real leadership are too important for any of us to get any pleasure from being able to say "I told you so". I still shudder at the thought of how close Martin came after his election to "blowing it" on legal aid issues. I took the view then that if his true position were known to the 20,000 or so legal aid solicitors he would never be elected again, yet I and others laboured hard to prevent him from selling that pass - it was simply too important to the profession as a whole to let it happen.
I can already imagine the sort of prose Martin will pen in response to this piece. But I have one advantage over the rest of you. Martin has already jumped the gun in attacking me publicly. His full page on the subject in the Daily Mail last Easter, when he knew me not at all and was totally unaware of the John Young history, was a model of inaccuracy and nastiness. Nor did he make it plain to readers that I was a rival candidate for election.
He exposed himself then as he meant to go on; small wonder perhaps that I took a particular interest after that in how he operates. Then again, perhaps he will simply dismiss this as time that I should better have spent with my family.
I have refused offers to retaliate in the Daily Mail, just as I refuse gladiatorial combats with him on television, as it can only bring the profession into disrepute. But I write this now for those of you who want to listen or learn more about what your heroes do in the name of democracy.
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