Seizing the impetus for reform

David Thomas is a council member and partner at Lees Lloyd Whitely, Liverpool.

Those who expected confrontation between the new president and the council at the September Law Society Council meeting were disappointed. Sweetness and light abounded, despite differences in opinion.

The council recognised the new president has a democratic mandate and will consider his ideas with an open mind. The president recognised that constituency council members have a democratic mandate too and he will consider their ideas with an open mind.

Now the harsh words of the hustings are behind us, everyone wants to concentrate on doing what is best for the profession. There will be honest differences of opinion but there will also be constructive debate and sensitivity to the concerns of the membership. All candidates hoped the election would provide the impetus for reform and first steps have been taken.

Whatever policies are adopted, it is essential the Law Society is able to implement them swiftly and efficiently. Furthermore, there is a clear need to consider what the society should or should not be doing and how this can be done cost effectively.

The issues do not grab headlines or emotions as much as the level of conveyancing fees or the future of the SCB. But it is important we get them right.

The Law Society has a lot to be proud of, but there is much room for improvement. Those of us who have been around for some time know better than most what improvements are needed.

To help the council concentrate its mind on these issues, I wrote a paper entitled What is wrong with the Law Society? What are we going to do about it? This was before the council's September meeting and formed the basis of two resolutions, passed without dissent.

In the first resolution the council directed the strategy committee to produce a timetable to consider a range of issues about the society's organisation and relationship with the membership.

Contrary to predictions from conspiracy theorists, there is no move to stop the membership electing its president. The council had not pre-judged the decisions it will come to about the issues raised by the paper. But some of the things I hope it will examine are:

a new attitude, turning the Law Society from a bureaucracy into a service organisation which solicitors join because they want to, not because they think they have to

the implications of this for the new secretary general and the skills and experience the job demands

speeding up the decision-making process and increasing democracy by replacing the nominated Strategy Committee with a new, elected Policy Committee

easing the crippling workload of the president by hiving off many ceremonial functions from the policy ones and considering which should fall to the president and which to someone else

replacing the current bureaucratic committee structure with policy teams – working parties appointed by the Policy Committee to oversee tasks within a set time and budget

creating specialist sections, where practitioners in particular fields can work together to develop policy and provide services – involving more solicitors in the democratic process.

None of this must lead to any increase in cost – quite the reverse. This brings me to the second resolution. The council agreed to set up an Activity Audit Working Party (which includes the new president)

to report by 7 March 1996 its recommendations on:

which existing Law Society activities should be continued

what new services (if any) should be provided

which existing/new services should be free, subsidised, charged at cost or be profit

centres

which in-house activities should be "market tested" against external provision

which activities should be conducted centrally and which regionally.

None of this will be completed overnight. But the council has agreed that the time for reform is now, right now, and we have begun to act.