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1 October 2013
Imagine a world in which an English solicitor is suddenly informed that there is now an international rule that decrees that English solicitors are no longer able to handle client money. A world in which every foreign law firm that obtains a licence to open a new office in China is German or American. A world in which the representative body of the solicitors' profession maintains an empty chair policy at international events. This is what life could be like if the Law Society did not have an active diplomatic strategy, led from the very top of the organisation. This is what The Lawyer appears to be inviting through its recent criticism of the international activities of the president of the Law Society.
It is always easy for those who don't go on visits abroad, or who would like to but haven't been asked, to see them as 'jollies'. They don't see the relentless schedule of meetings, the 24-hour days and the fact that the work back home is still waiting on return. More importantly, what they also don't see is the fact that the president of the Law Society represents a professional body that is one of the largest and most influential in the world, and which therefore cannot avoid having an international presence.
It is essential for the standing of the Law Society, both at home and abroad, that the president attends and speaks on international or European platforms, such as the American Bar Association Annual Conference or the European Presidents Conference in Vienna, at which the profession benchmarks its performance and shares intelligence about worldwide trends. It is important that he is there to lobby at meetings such as the Union of International Associations' congresses, when issues such as the Global Professional Code of Conduct are being debated, which most Law Society members would have balked at in its first draft. It is nonsensical to expect that international opportunities will just fall into the lap of solicitors' firms and that English law can maintain its competitive position globally without the necessary legwork being done. When this means calling on foreign governments at the highest level, only a president or senior officeholder will get that kind of access to lobby on behalf of Law Society members.
Every one of the foreign visits undertaken by the Law Society president over the past year falls into one of these categories. A further eight invitations from foreign jurisdictions that did not were politely declined during the same period. In his year in office, David McIntosh has undertaken eight overseas visits. Six of these were representational, ensuring that the Law Society of England and Wales was present and active at meetings with its peer group internationally. At each of these meetings, he either gave a speech, had additional bilateral meetings to press for movement on practice rights issues, or did both. The two additional visits he has undertaken proactively, to China and Japan and Korea, were at the request of the profession, which asked for the Law Society's help in resolving practice rights issues.
There is, of course, a cost to maintaining such an active international profile. But the figure of £200,000 that appeared in The Lawyer's article is ludicrous. To rack up this sort of expenditure on the amount of travel undertaken by the president in the past year, every trip he took would have to have been on Concorde, every night would have to have been spent in the equivalent of a suite at the Georges V in Paris - and he would still have had £50,000 left over to spend on entertaining. The actual cost has been £70, 444.
Finally, it was somewhat disingenuous of The Lawyer to invoke comparison with the pattern of overseas travel undertaken by the president of the Law Society of Scotland. The Law Society of Scotland has a membership of only 10,000 solicitors. It has few foreign lawyers practising in Scotland and as yet no registered European lawyers and no firms with overseas offices. Yet the president of the Law Society of Scotland undertook half of the overseas visits undertaken by David McIntosh, to the American and Canadian Bar conferences, to Brussels, to the European Presidents Conference and to the Law Society of Ireland's annual conference in Sorrento. He may well have flown easyJet to one of the European destinations, but that airline does not yet fly to Beijing.