If it ain't broke, then don't fix it
14 June 1999
And now for a more reasoned critique of the latest presidential election than was evinced in the last issue (The Lawyer, 7 June).
Last December, Sir Dennis Stevenson addressed the Law Society Council. Sir Dennis is a respected adviser to major companies and we had brought him in to examine the society. He confirmed many of the things I already knew - that the organisation of the society made it almost impossible for it to make sensible decisions quickly enough to react to the profession's problems, and that fundamental reform was essential.
He also made one other thing very clear: "The continual contested presidential elections are making you a laughing stock and undermining you in the eyes of the Government, the press and the very opinion-formers you need to win over. Stop them immediately."
I think that says it all.
Of course there must be elections when there are genuine differences of opinion about important issues that cannot be resolved by any other means - but not elections just for the sake of it. That devalues the whole democratic process.
Are there any such genuine policy issues at stake this year? I don't think so. The battle for general acceptance of the need for reform was won last year - not when I won the last election but in December 1998, when the council voted almost unanimously to back a blueprint a small group of us had prepared, which set out a programme for radically restructuring the society and the way it operated. That was the turning point I had been working towards for the previous three years - a consensus for change.
Since then, more progress has been made than in the previous 20 years. A team of eight of us put the society under the microscope. We checked exactly what it did and why. All that was of value we kept. When there was a better way of carrying out a function we put that in place.
We didn't do this arbitrarily. Before we started, we consulted widely, not only with the profession, council members and staff, but also with representatives from a dozen other organisations that had gone through similar changes, including professional bodies, local authorities and the Trades Union Congress. We took their best ideas and adapted them.
We created an interim executive committee to manage the society's business. We freed up the decision-making process by abolishing no fewer than 50 committees. Where there were problems needing urgent attention, we set up single-issue working parties to sort them out.
And it's not just the mechanism we are rebuilding. It's the basic policy structure as well. We asked the profession to identify the issues it felt most needed resolution. It came back with indemnity, regulation, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, high street firms, legal aid, multidisciplinary partnerships, and our public image. We set up teams of enthusiastic, experienced solicitors to rethink these issues from scratch. Even now they are coming up with new ideas, from how to help firms become more profitable to simplifying regulation.
Reform has been the issue at the heart of all previous elections. It is now taking place. So what is the burning issue this time, and if there isn't one, why are we having this election? What justifies not only the financial cost but the real risk of harm to the profession from another public bout of political in-fighting? Isn't there a more sensible alternative?
Robert Sayer is vice president of the Law Society.