It was a baptism of fire for Ken Murphy when he took over the role of director-general of the Irish Law Society two months ago. Solicitors advising on tax were included in the so-called “snitchers” law, section 153 of the Finance Bill, to the society's horror.
Murphy's task was to fight the clause. And fight it he did in a blaze of publicity through the Irish newspapers, writing articles and commenting as well as giving forceful interviews on prime-time radio and television.
Murphy, who could not be described as publicity shy, was ready and waiting for all media calls, and stoutly defended the Law Society's unprecedented position, saying it would call on members not to obey such a law if it came to pass as it was unconstitutional.
“It is the biggest campaigning role the Law Society has played,” Murphy says, adding that it was the first time that interested parties were summoned before a government select committee to make a submission on legislation.
The campaign against the inclusion of solicitors brought home to Murphy how much time is necessary for lobbying on pending legislation. But, he would still like to see the society's role increase and will be monitoring a host of potential laws, such as possible government proposals on capping insurance awards as well as the Court Officers Bill which may create solicitor judge appointments to the Higher Courts.
But lobbying is just one of a number of tasks waiting for Murphy on his arrival at Blackhall Place from the rather different world of A&L Goodbody where he has been a partner since 1990. One task was “coming to grips with the administration generally,” he says. His experience enabled him “to hit the ground running” as he was already familiar
with issues affecting solicitors.
His first 'Viewpoint' article in the Irish Law Society's bible, the Gazette, takes the society to task for having no strategic plan and must have hit a few raw nerves.
“The biggest problem, remarkable for an organisation of its size and importance, is that it has no strategic plan which analyses where it wants the profession to be in 10, five or even two years from now and identifies the steps which must be taken to achieve these objectives,” he proclaims in his comment on the current Law Society review.
Of previous reviews, he comments: “The society's archives contain the results of two or three different stabs at such reviews undertaken over the past 25 years. They appear, however, to have been less than full-blooded affairs. Indeed, measured in terms of resulting change, they seem to have been positively anaemic.”
The review was put in motion to look at the society's structures but, says Murphy, it will be a wasted opportunity if the committee does not look at core problems such as an economic and strategic examination of the profession.
Changes in the profession from competition, government regulation, loss of social esteem and declining profitability need to be looked at so that it correctly identifies the nature and scale of the forces changing the environment it is operating in and then develops a coherent plan of action.
After two years chairing the Law Society Education Committee, another subject close to Murphy's heart is the educational aspect of the profession. His solution is to expand the profession's workload instead of the current reliance on core areas such as conveyancing and probate. “There is a need to expand into the commercial area and what has been perceived as lawyer's work,” he comments. He adds that lawyers need to be trained in areas such as business and management. “There is not enough traditional work for solicitors with the numbers currently flooding into the profession,” he says.
He also sees himself as a sort of Mary Robinson figure for the large numbers of Irish solicitors who emigrate, saying he is “very keen for Irish solicitors in England and elsewhere to know that they have a friend at court as far as the Law Society of Ireland is concerned”. He was part of the diaspora when working in A&L Goodbody's Brussels office. “I'm the only member of the Irish Law Society Council to have worked abroad,” he adds.
However, Murphy does not plan to spend a lifetime sorting out the problems of the profession. At 38, and as the youngest ever Irish Law Society director-general, his aim is to return to private practice.