The price of taking solicitors' time free

The Law Society headquarters at Chancery Lane has its charms and membership has its privileges.

The 172-year-old legal institution has the look and aura of a refined gentleman's club – some councillors have served for almost 20 years, their expenses generously reimbursed throughout that time.

But the price they pay is up to six weeks of unpaid work each year, which is spent wading through a mound of council papers, and at least two days each month in London debating legal issues.

One council member says that if it was not for the fact that he was the senior partner at his firm, there would be no way he would be able to afford the time and commitment the job demanded.

Angela Deacon, one of four sole practitioners serving on the council, estimates she has lost a sixth of her fee income since she joined four years ago.

She warns that for the society to make the most of itself, it must have a mix of solicitors sitting on the council. It must not be restricted to those who can afford the time.

The problem of finding time for the profession is not restricted to the national Law Society. Local law societies, which provide grass roots support, are facing even greater difficulties.

“A number of local law societies are reporting that their membership is falling,” says society deputy director of communications Gerald Newman, who monitors their activities. “They also report difficulties getting people to stand for positions such as secretary.”

Newman says heavy workloads are behind the problem, and adds that those who do Law Society work are under increasing pressure from their partners to concentrate more on their practices and less on the profession as a whole.

Outside the society, other lawyers campaigning for the profession are also coming under fire. The Lawyer has learned that one partner from a small London firm, who is a member of the Solicitors Property Group and who has spent hours of unpaid work promoting property centres, has been warned by his partners to cut back on his commitment.

Law Society president Tony Girling is worried that the pressures on solicitors will mean there is a risk that solicitors from small firms, such as his own Kent practice, Girlings, will no longer be able to afford to become involved in the running of the profession.

The society is trying to address this problem through a programme started in 1995. It encourages regional law societies to set up offices that provide logistical and administrative support for local members. The sixth such centre will open this year. And last week (30 April), a plan by treasurer Robert Sayer to link councillors and staff through a computer network in the eventual hope of cutting down on the number of meetings, was approved by the Policy Committee.

Law Society critics claim council members are in it for their own ends. But the fact is, that while solicitors on the council may raise their profile within the profession, clients are unlikely to notice.

Both Newman and Deacon say that solicitors on the council get no extra legal work coming to them.

“They see it as their way of putting something back into the profession,” says Newman.

In future, many solicitors may question if such noble ideals still have a place in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace.