The reformed club

If the feel-good factor is returning the profession, not everyone is experiencing it yet. The rising economic tide seems to have lifted some while others remain stranded.

It is still difficult for new solicitors to find jobs due to the large numbers qualifying each year. And some general practices remain uneconomic even now. Over 80 per cent of Irish practices are either one or two-partner firms, engaged mainly in plaintiff personal injury litigation, residential property, conveyancing and probate. For these firms, competition is intense, hours are long and profits are meagre.

On the up side, the society's Compensation Fund recently enjoyed a period of two years without a single new practice needing payments. This is in contrast to the early 1990s when claims on the fund were frequent and substantial.

Lawyers are probably less critical of their professional organisations during economic good times. However, there is feedback to suggest that the profession is happier with the Law Society now than it has been for some years, and the improvement in the economy may not be the only factor.

Central to this is a process of reform which appears to have satisfied the membership worries. The springboard for this was a stormy annual general meeting in November 1994, which passed resolutions demanding an inquiry into society structures and administration.

A seven-person working group was established under the chairmanship of a well-respected former president. Three of the members of the group had long experience as council members and knew how the society worked from the inside. The other three were concerned solicitors who had never been members and could contribute objectivity, credibility and the fresh perspective of outsiders.

After nine months of deliberation, a report with 106 recommendations was sent to every member of the profession. It then came before a special general meeting of the society where, during six hours of debate, practically all of the recommendations were adopted. The council then accepted the results of the meeting, including some of its recommendations. In particular a clause establishing a 10-year time limit for council membership, originally opposed by the majority of council members, was adopted.

When implemented, the recommendations of the review working group should produce a streamlined society that is more responsive to members' wishes. A key objective is to bring the society's representative role out from the shadow of its regulatory role.

Apart from a society review process which has been well received, the perceived gap between the institutional society and the membership has been narrowed by the adoption of an assertive and determined approach to representing member interests. This has been manifest in the council's position on various issues, and in the unapologetic and forceful public expression of those positions.

A striking example of this was the society's response to section 153 of the Finance Bill, 1995. If enacted the section would, in certain circumstances, have required solicitors to report clients to the Revenue Commissioners for tax evasion, and so break the traditional client confidentiality. The society obtained counsels' opinion that the move would undermine clients' right against self-incrimination which is enshrined in the Irish Constitution.

At that point the society took the public position that it would recommend its members not to comply with the law while an appeal against it went through the courts. Although politicians were furious, the Attorney General was persuaded that the society's view of the unconstitutional nature of the proposed measure was correct, and the government had no option but to withdraw it.

Another popular move was made towards the end of last year, when the society engaged in lobbying which secured a change in legislation to make solicitors eligible, for the first time, for appointment as judges of the Circuit Court. After four years of Circuit service, they are also become eligible to serve in the High Court and Supreme Court. The first appointments are still awaited, but the breakthrough has been widely welcomed by solicitors.