Legal junket faces shake-up as Irvine goes for the jugular

It was the legal equivalent of inviting an important guest to a dinner party only to have them head-butt the host.

Home Secretary and former barrister Jack Straw rolled up to the Annual Bar Conference on 27 September, opened his keynote speech with a few anti-solicitor jibes and then let fly with two sentences that re-ignited the fat-cat barristers' row.

His comments on barristers' fees dominated media coverage of the Bar's showcase event.

And there will be some at the Law Society who will be wondering if the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, is travelling to the Solicitors' Annual Conference in Cardiff this weekend to deliver a similar “Glasgow kiss” to the profession.

Then again, the conference could probably do with all the publicity it can get. In 1988, when the conference was also in Cardiff, the then Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay turned up to deliver an anodyne speech. Two days later he announced the biggest shake-up of legal services this century.

So it is understandable that there was a frisson of excitement at the Law Society when it became apparent that Lord Irvine was planning to make a major announcement at the conference. That excitement reflected an ardent desire for the conference to make waves.

Over the years, the conference's organisers have struggled to convince the profession that it is relevant .

According to Andrew Lockley, former director of legal practice at the Law Society, of the 800 to 1,000 delegates who descend on Cardiff, many will either be speakers themselves, Law Society council members or local law society activists.

This inevitably gives the conference the feel of a convention of high street lawyers.

“The agenda is always prepared very carefully to be of interest to the whole profession, but it has always been very difficult to get that message across,” said Lockley.

This year, senior Clifford Chance partner Tony Willis will be at the conference alongside Robert Ayling, chief executive of British Airways. But representatives from the large commercial firms will be as thin on the ground as ever.

Of the general issues facing the legal profession, Clifford Chance managing partner Geoffrey Howe was most concerned about the crisis affecting the Solicitors Indemnity Fund which does not appear on the conference agenda.

“By and large, it's not of great significance,” said Howe. “A great majority of the issues, the middle ground, will not be particularly relevant. The business of the City firms is increasingly international – the UK issues are not top of the agenda.”

Davies Arnold Cooper senior partner David McIntosh is one City solicitor who is attending the conference – but he is also a member of the Law Society council. He insists that Lord Irvine's expected announcements will be just as relevant to the City as to anybody else.

McIntosh believes powerful plaintiff clients will be attracted by the concept of conditional fees if, as expected, they are extended to commercial litigation.

He also predicts that companies face a flood of litigation from individuals and other companies who were not previously eligible for legal aid.

One City lawyer commented: “I may be wrong, but I have always viewed the conference as a club for the Law Society, somewhere where they can meet old friends over a glass of port.”

And, said a young solicitor: “It doesn't seem to attract that much attention, other than from people from the Law Society.”

A few choice words from Lord Irvine in Cardiff this weekend could rapidly change that – at least for a few days.

However, it will take more than that to turn the conference into a convention for the entire profession.