Law Soc elects to make a few changes

A contradiction lies at the heart of the Law Society's democratic structure. In two successive years, the profession has elected a president on a specific programme. And yet the president has no formal constitutional power to implement manifesto pledges.

Indeed, the president's ability to persuade the Law Society Council to back his programme is potentially hampered by the fact that, as the council's chairman, he does not participate in the debates!

Have you had your say in how to resolve this mismatch between voters' expectations, and the reality of the president's power to deliver? A consultation paper from the Law Society gives you the opportunity, and is already attracting a heavy response.

Few of the early respondents to the consultation would be happy with a president who was just a figurehead, with only a ceremonial role. But while support for a president with executive powers exists, it is limited, and most see the president as the profession's leader.

What about elections? The consultation paper points out that a presidential election costs around £90,000, while fewer than half the society's members choose to vote (36.1 per cent in 1995, and 44.5 per cent in 1996). The term of office is only one year, and not only are there limits on the president's formal powers, but he will also need to spend a good part of the year on the campaign trail, if he seeks re-election.

Perhaps general elections for council members – say every three years – might provide a more effective means for expressing the dissatisfaction and anxiety for change which were evident in the results of the two presidential elections. General elections might avoid the risk of deadlock between a president elected on one mandate and council members on another.

Individual council members are already accountable to their constituents: there are elections for one quarter of the council seats every year, with each member serving four years, and general elections might dilute this continuity.

Some respondents also worry that general elections will institutionalise division by forcing candidates to stand on a national party-political "ticket" rather than on their personal local reputation.

Constituency elections are not the only way to ensure a representative council. Over half the profession are under the age of 40 – only four out of 75 council members are in that group. Women solicitors now account for 30 per cent of all practising solicitors; there are currently 11 women council members.

Should non-constituency seats be used to help improve balance? And should special interests and other groups be represented on the council – alongside the majority who are elected to represent geographical constituencies?

"Sections" may also help to close the gap between the Law Society and the profession, highlighted by the society's report on high street firms, made to the 1994 AGM. Successful in the US and Australia, sections provide a new model for Law Society membership, based directly on the interests and specialisms of individual practitioners. The Law Society has in the past always struggled, unrealistically, to be all things to all practitioners. Starting with the Probate Section, there will be an alternative. Last year 1,600 probate practitioners replied to a questionnaire, and 88 per cent of those expressed an interest in joining.

And constitutional change is not enough on its own. Under the new Secretary-General, Jane Betts, the Law Society is committed to becoming much more responsive as a service organisation, offering value for money in everything it does.

But managing the business of the Law Society to ensure that we meet the needs of the profession must be complemented by the democratic systems in which the profession has confidence and in which it participates. In getting this right, we will rely on you making your voice heard in the consultation.