Does anyone care who runs the Law Society?
21 July 1998
With apathy once again winning the elections, Shaun Pye wonders whether this is the start of yet another year of talk and no action
Congratulations. By reading even this far you have identified yourself as one of a select, and dwindling, band of lawyers who give a jot about who runs the Law Society.
For those who have not heard, last week Michael Mathews beat Michael Napier to become the new president, Robert Sayer beat David McIntosh for vice-president and Kamlesh Bahl beat David Keating for deputy vice-president.
Turnout in local government and professional elections normally runs at about 35 per cent. Last year's Law Society election managed a 30 per cent turnout. This year the figure was down to 25 per cent.
Well-publicised figures in the recent Law Society customer focus survey showing lawyers were sick of contested elections, which cost £100,000 for each of the three offices, have been proved spot on.
Speculation that the City vote might be boosted by the candidature of Messrs Mathews, a partner at Clifford Chance, and McIntosh, senior partner with Davis Arnold Cooper, proved laughable.
Mathews says a number of lawyers at Clifford Chance loyally ticked his box. A random bunch that we phoned last week had not.
The consensus is that the active electorate comprised what is unkindly called "the donkey vote". These are mainly provincial high street lawyers who vote in every election, normally for the establishment figure. Of course, this year the donkey vote faced a dilemma - there was not an obvious establishment ticket.
So the vote will have hinged on personalities.
Sayer, the only true representative of the discontented high street, and the high-profile Bahl carried the day. Napier was the one defeated candidate who punched above his slate, keeping Mathews' majority to less than 1,500.
Napier's credentials as the man to tackle the government over legal aid reform clearly struck a chord with the profession. From the moment he announced his candidacy he was spelling out his legal aid strategy.
At his victory press conference Mathews was mainly grilled over whether he would be shaving off his mutton-chop whiskers.
So how will the new office-holders fare over the coming year? It is an open secret that staff at the Law Society wanted Napier to win. Inside Chancery Lane Mathews may be considered a nice chap but it is felt Sayer and Bahl will wear the trousers.
Sayer is seen as a populist, capable of pleasing his conveyancing constituency but without the political nous, or tact, to actually achieve anything. It is said that some of Bahl's colleagues at the Equal Opportunities Commission found her difficult to work with.
There is no indication the council will unite behind the new team. Losers and winners are making the right noises about working together. But Sayer and McIntosh, in particular, are known to dislike each other. During the election Sayer's supporters christened his opponent "McNasty". Mathews says he wants consensus "but not for the sake of it".
Other council members have wildly divergent views. Tony Bogan hails the result as "wonderful" and "a clear vote for continuity". Eileen Pembridge says Napier and McIntosh would have been better. She says the winners do not have sufficient understanding of legal aid and "will be increasingly put upon by the Lord Chancellor's department".
The big question is whether the three office-holders themselves can work together. Their slate was transparently cobbled together. We will find out soon enough just how much Sayer and Mathews have in common.
And their policies? During campaigning Napier accused Mathews of "looking down the wrong end of the telescope" by putting reform of the Law Society above taking on the government. Mathews now says the two are not mutually exclusive but that it is easier to dictate the timetable for internal reform: "We don't even know when there will be a modernisation of justice bill," he says.
Mathews adds that he has no pre-conceived strategy for dealing with the government but will take things as they come.
As for professional indemnity, Mathews refuses to be drawn beyond saying he has some interesting ideas which will be revealed at the end of the consultation period.
If this election has any relevance, it is that it underlines the sorry opinion the profession has of its professional body. Former president Martin Mears has slammed the result, saying that he will refer to the new regime as the "14 per centers" - the proportion of solicitors who endorsed Mathews as president.
Sayer rubbishes Mears criticism: "Everyone who didn't vote was saying that the Law Society is a waste of space. But by implication they endorse what we are saying - that it must be reformed."
There is talk of reforming the electoral system, of voting only for vice-president to ensure continuity, as is the case in many other professions. Solicitors will have to wait another year to see if the presidency is to be contested again. It seems many would happily wait for ever, in glorious ignorance.
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