Tony Girling/CPS. The bridge-mender general
25 March 1997
Law Society president Tony Girling is not sure if the 60,000-plus solicitors he works for are really interested in what he has been doing for the past eight months.
"A lot of the work I have been spending my time on is not the exciting stuff which your editor believes your readers are going to want to see," he says.
But, sitting in his tiny but functional Chancery Lane office, Girling professes himself happy to have quietly tinkered with the Law Society's administrative structure while subtly spreading his message at a never-ending sequence of meetings.
"I do not resent the fact I may not have been in the headlines all the time and that when I have it may not have been flattering."
In fact, a check of the Reuters media database reveals six lines noting that Girling won a 662- vote majority in last July's three-horse electoral race. Punch in the name of his controversial predecessor and presidential rival Martin Mears and well over 20 national newspaper stories, including details of his marriage, flood the screen.
Girling stood on an electoral soap box of bringing "respectability" back to the profession. Many of his supporters believed Mears was a legal showman who had created a media circus and damaged the profession with his outspoken style.
"Part of my job is to mend those bridges," says Girling, neatly side-stepping the question of who supposedly burned them, "and I believe I've done it with considerable success."
Asked to describe his own leadership style, Girling's earlier 40-minute verbal barrage about his Law Society work shudders to a halt. Authoritative as opposed to authoritarian, he finally offers. "I don't see confrontation itself as a likely means to success."
So during the last few months Girling has quietly been reorganising the society, identifying the 20 most critical areas affecting the profession, centralising control of finances and instituting supervision of projects.
A quiet revolution? "It's an effective revolution," counters Girling "and effective revolutions don't involve blood on the carpet... well if there is blood on the carpet it's cleaned up before the public gets to see it."
Girling's nemesis, Mears, has done his best to push back the leather chairs at Chancery Lane to expose any hidden stains - even going so far as to produce his own anti-Law Society magazine, Caterpillar.
Yet it is deputy treasurer Robert Sayer who has done the most damage, in helping to sink Girling's manifesto pledge of a Law Society-developed computer software package for the profession.
The High Street Starter kit cost the Society £220,00 in development costs before it was finally scrapped by the council two weeks ago.
Girling is unrepentant. "I don't believe it was a mistake: the mistake was that the organisation and the arrangements for a project of that nature were not satisfactory.
"I'm absolutely convinced that the Law Society must have a role in practices in terms of appropriate IT support. The private sector is the jungle in which so many firms have suffered."
Girling is similarly unapologetic to those who say the society does not act fast enough and fiddles while areas like conveyancing burn.
He says while pressure groups scream for action any move the society makes inevitably has an impact on another group of solicitors and there is a need to act in the interests of the profession as a whole rather than a vocal few.
"If the price to pay for individual sections of the profession not getting what they want or not getting it swiftly enough is a much stronger professional body being able to exert more influence, then I think it is a price that has to be paid."
Girling, though, is sympathetic to those who want swift change, saying he has repeatedly used his influence as president to bring issues like the future of conveyancing to the forefront of the council's agenda.
He professes himself frustrated with the "stultifying" process whereby rule changes have to be approved by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (Aclec).
Increasing the pace of decisions even further is one of Girling's goals. He has looked to increase staff numbers in what he sees as key areas but also warns that staff in non-critical areas may be laid off.
He vows there will be a reduction in the £470 practice certificate for the next two years, though he will not commit himself to specific figures. An audit committee has been set up "to look over the shoulder", as has a projects group to prevent another Regis and High Street Starter Kit fiasco.
Girling is also keen to confront issues such as legal privilege and conflict of interest to help clear the way for multi-disciplinary partnerships (MDPs).
"By looking at other models and using our ingenuity can we find ways that MDPs could be made to work," he said.
On the high street Girling is concerned about the impact of mediation on family solicitors, and says smaller firms should band together in a chambers-like arrangement.
"The society has to encourage the smallest firms to look very much more at the boutique model, at the concept of concentrating on a very limited number of practice areas, the ones in which you are genuinely competent.
"My legacy, I believe, is that there will be a Law Society that has a clear direction in terms of the policy areas that matter."
Whether Girling's tinkering with the internal administration nuts and bolts will work wonders has yet to be seen. But he has been on the Law Society council since 1980 and surely no one can know the machine better.
But as a president that has appointed critics like Sayer to top jobs and seemingly enjoys erecting the scaffolding rather than screaming from the grandstand, Girling has attracted often vitriolic criticism from a few within the profession.
Maybe it is because Girling is seen as Establishment, a label he furiously rejects.
Instead, Girling portrays himself as part radical, part conservative with a small 'c', changing the way the Law Society is run but adamant that it must retain its original aims of representing the entire profession, attempting to appease his political enemies while pleasing his supporters, and listening to the concerns of a disgruntled sole practitioner while keeping an eye on the needs of the City.
Perhaps the risk is that despite the huge effort he has put in, Tony Girling may end up pleasing no one.
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