7 August 2000
So Michael Napier won the election for Law Society president by a margin of two votes to one. Two to one, eh? Frankly, I'm surprised that as many as three members voted. Surely no profession can possibly have so many major grievances against its regulatory body? I don't know about you, but for a while there I found it a necessary survival tactic at parties to lie about what I do for a living.
The incumbent president made himself a laughing stock, allowing a tiring, faded Bar Council to retain its usual undue degree of influence on the evolution of government policy. And the Kamlesh Bahl episode has made every thinking solicitor wince with shame, from the issues it raised to the way it was handled. But at least the Law Society president no longer gets a compulsory knighthood.
Have you actually read the Law Society rules on conflicts lately? Don't worry if you haven't - they're the same as when you did your training. Strange regulations drawn from a world of domestic conveyancing that has long since passed from the face of the earth. You remember it - all that stuff about not acting for both sides in a transaction unless they are related. Just the sort of sound, contemporary guidance a profession needs as it faces challenges in its commercial heartland from the accountants and the Americans. At the precise point, in other words, when it needs to define its independence in a more robust way than ever.
I find it tragic that the Law Society is so lamentably out of touch with reality for commercial firms and that it is unable to undertake the long overdue review of these rules. It has had to delegate the task to the City of London Law Society, which some say (and, personally, I don't believe it) is in the process of planning a breakaway society for commercial solicitors only. For years now the commercial end of the legal sector has had to cope with hopelessly inappropriate professional regulation, as financial institutions sued the arse off a solicitors' profession which was unsure of where its duties lay, even in such simple circumstances as a domestic sale and purchase with a building society mortgage. And it was, after all, the Law Society's infirm management of its darling mutual professional indemnity fund that allowed the serially negligent to continue in business when the rug should have been drawn smartly from under them. In the process, a shortfall of major proportions arose to our joint and several account.
Then there's the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau, for which the Law Society is directly responsible. This is an organisation that is so funereally slow it makes an M25 tailback look recklessly swift. Faced with the tricky task of retaining the trust and confidence of the profession and its clients, it has taken refuge in a bureaucracy so laboured and inefficient that it has forfeited both. Needless to say, clients with legitimate complaints wrongly see this farce as a stitch-up to protect the legal profession, while the ranks of unmeritorious complainants swell daily, thereby adding insult to the injury suffered by the whole profession.
Overall, I seriously question the received wisdom that any kind of self regulation is better than a statutory system. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, could be worse or more damaging than what we now endure.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at email@example.com