10 April 2006
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23 January 2006
In less that two weeks, the Law Society's consultation on its future, known as 'Have Your Say', draws to a close.
By then some 20,000 solicitors are expected to have completed the 10-minute, online form and offered their views.
Ahead of that, The Lawyer took up an invitation from Law Society president Kevin Martin to let him, as it were, have his say.
Martin initiated the interview as a response to a profile of the director general of the Confederation of British Industry Sir Digby Jones, which ran earlier this year (23 January). In that article, Jones claimed that the Law Society had an "impossible task", as it was trying to be regulator and promoter to a legal market that consisted of three distinct groups of firms: high street solicitors, domestic businesses and international heavyweights. He added that these groups were not just different aspects of the same profession, but were "totally different industries". Jones went on to say that he had originally made his comments in 1995 and yet, more than 10 years later, nothing had changed.
The comments had additional bite because the 150-year-old society is currently debating its future shape and role. Indeed, part of the debate asks whether it has a future at all. The regulation and complaints-handling roles have already been split off ahead of the summer's Legal Services Bill. Jones' comments, intentionally or not, have highlighted the regular refrain of whether a representative body for all 100,000-plus solicitors in England and Wales was outdated, out of fashion and out of time.
Speaking from his office at Chancery Lane, an extremely affable and composed Kevin Martin stresses that he has the "utmost respect" for legal market old boy Jones, but maintains that his view, that nothing has changed in 10 years, is out of touch. "I think it did strike the wrong chord," he argues. "I think [Jones' views] are actually historical and not entirely in touch with where we are now."
Martin claims that there is more demand now than ever for an effective national body to represent all solicitors. He points to figures showing that the profession has grown by more than 50 per cent in the past 10 years, from some 80,000 in the mid-1990s to the current 126,000. "Since the 1970s it's grown from 25,000 to where we are today," he adds. "That's a huge tribute to many practitioners from many firms, but also to the way in which I believe they've been governed by the Law Society as the regulator, to ensure that it delivers a light-touch regulatory regime."
The continued 'light-touch' regulatory regime is a central plank of Martin's and the Law Society's policy towards the English and Welsh legal market, and one to which he returns regularly. It is particularly apposite in the context of Jones' comments about a diversified profession. Martin, together with representatives from the Bar Council, is to embark on a trip to China this Thursday (13 April) to promote the interests of his members. The aim is to help English and Welsh firms expand their presences in the country. The key, as Martin sees it, is to persuade the Chinese authorities to free up the market so that it becomes easier to employ indigenous lawyers and thereby facilitate the expansion of the English and Welsh law firms.
"The potential is almost limitless," says Martin, "and we have a major role to play in unleashing that potential."
The trip would appear to emphasise Jones' point that the UK market is divided - surely opening an office in China is only the preserve of the big City firm?
"I do want to make this point, it's terribly important," says Martin. "We talk about the work that the Law Society does internationally and I think a lot of people jump to the conclusion that this is all for the magic circle firms or the big City firms and it's not for them. Actually, it's for everybody. I know of quite a number of solicitors who are not at very large firms and who are already handling a great deal of international work, and I know of many others who have ambitions to do so. We're not saying that it's top of the agenda of lots of high street firms, that would be overstating it, but it's increasingly something that firms are looking at."
But the truth is, there is a huge difference between a magic circle and a high street firm, and even if they are both handling international matters, the work and the issues raised are utterly at odds. Martin agrees that there is "a huge difference in many ways", but argues: "When you scratch the surface, what you find is that there are rather a lot of things they may have in common."
A recent National Opinion Poll report commissioned by the Law Society found that 91 per cent of respondents wanted a national representative body and 80 per cent were willing to pay a mandatory fee for some representational services. It is principally the role of being the effective voice of the profession in relation to the regulators that Martin believes is critical for the future.
"That is vitally important for every kind of practitioner," says Martin. He points to last year's row over Stamp Duty Land Tax. New rules meant that any firm handling conveyancing was hit by an extra administrative burden, including what Martin describes as an "over-complicated" form and a helpline that "couldn't cope". He says the system was "a total shambles, a disgrace".
He adds: "Solely as a result of our campaign - which was subscribed to by 4,500 firms, well over half the firms in this country, including magic circle firms - the regime has been improved to the point where it's almost unrecognisable from the shambles it was two and a half years ago, although there's still plenty of room for improvement."
The Law Society may be seen by some solicitors as an irrelevance, but at least in Martin it has a great champion. And as law firms head ever further down the road of corporatisation and into the land of private equity sales, legal disciplinary practices and multidisciplinary partnerships, Martin is convinced that the majority will remain first and foremost law firms, not businesses.
"That's what chimes with the work the Law Society can and does do for them," he says. "They have that ethos; therefore they need a professional body to look after and represent the whole profession."