Law Society members are voting on a fundamental overhaul of the Society's charter which could see non-lawyers become fee-paying, non-voting "associate members".
The ballot is set to conclude tomorrow but a number of solicitors are heavily opposed to the reforms, which they fear could dilute the body's ability to represent solicitors' best interests.
The postal ballot was called by sole practitioner Vivien Stern, along with 19 other members, the minimum number required by the Society's bye-laws. The move scuppered the Law Society Council's plans to pass the changes at a special general meeting in July 2008 without a membership vote.
Stern warned that the Law Society's move could "damage the profession terribly." Sole practitioner Janis Purdy, who is also involved in the campaign to block the changes, agreed. "They will actually lose the support of solicitors. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of people who in the end are going to be saying to the Law Society 'we are paying fees and we now want voting rights and we want you to represent us'."
The Law Society's Council has come out heavily in favour of the reform, arguing that it will be required to adapt the Society to the Legal Services Act, which will enable non-solicitors to join the management tier of legal practices.
Kevin Martin, chair of the Law Society's membership board, denied that the proposed changes would have any adverse effect on the profession. "They can expect [voting rights] all they like - they're not going to get anything they want beyond the services we will offer them."
He added: "Many of us are still surprised and perplexed that there is so much interest in this issue. The council voted in favour of it by the necessary two thirds majority, then it had to go to the special general meeting where it was passed by the necessary two thirds. That's a pretty good example of democracy in action."
The Law Society hopes to generate significant income from the membership fees proposed to be paid by non-lawyer members. It envisages providing services to those members such as access to the Law Society's premises and library, discounts to conferences, written material, practice support and other offerings, Martin said.
The Law Society's Junior Lawyer's Division (JLD) has also called for its members to fully support the proposals. JLD president Kat Gibson said: " We must allow solicitors to have relationships with those it practises with. How else can multi-disciplinary practices operate?"