Is Law Society putting SRA cease-fire at risk with management clearout?

Law Society management was last week hit by a whirlwind that sees its six-strong top team either shifted out of the door or demoted.

Des Hudson
Des Hudson

Desmond Hudson, the society’s chief executive, called staff meetings with almost no notice last ­Tuesday (8 November) to announce curtly that the existing structure was being binned and that a crack squad of three ubermanagers was to be headhunted immediately. The clearout affects all areas of the ­professional body’s work and could raise tensions in the already delicate ­relationship with the SRA.

Chancery Lane’s day of long knives came only weeks after the society had to pay a substantial settlement ­following an Employment Tribunal finding that senior management had ­discriminated against the organisation’s only disabled full-time staff member (The Lawyer, 10 October).

Since Hudson assumed Chancery Lane’s top job five years ago, a parade of senior managers has left, including three directors – covering representation and law reform, commercial services and legal affairs – as well as two senior heads of departments who were responsible for international activity and legal policy.

Issues around cost will also strike the wider legal profession. Chancery Lane sources indicate that those departing from the ­management table will be in receipt of bumper ­payoffs. The total wage bill for the six senior managers scrapes the £1m mark, a ­figure that will translate into substantial severance bundles.

When combined with executive search fees and at least equivalent, if not enhanced, salaries for their replacements, a profession that is already curious about the society’s value for money will be facing a chunky bill.

In a statement Hudson said: “Our vision is to be the leading representative of the world’s best legal profession, valued as a vital partner by all we serve and engage with. To help to achieve it we are streamlining our executive leadership structure and bringing new skills into the organisation.”

But apart from the ­general upheaval caused by such a comprehensive change of leadership, there were suggestions last week that a ­crucial element of the rejig could reignite ­simmering enmity between the society and the SRA.

The creation of a director of organisation services role, which according to Hudson will have oversight of shared functions with the SRA such as HR, finance and IT, is seen by some as potentially breaching an agreement between the two organisations that is in place to meet Legal Services Board ­separation requirements under the terms of the Legal Services Act.

The move is also seen as potentially pre-empting a shared services deal struck later in the week between the society and the SRA. In a joint statement the two sides announced the creation of a “business and oversight board” that will have “equal representation from the Law Society and SRA, and ­independent ­members”.

According to the joint statement, the deal creates a role of managing director for shared services which would report directly to the new board and not the Law Society’s chief executive.

Subsequently, though, the Law Society maintained that the managing director and its new director of organisation will in fact be one and the same person. Whether that satisfies the SRA’s well-publicised desire for greater independence remains to be seen.

Last week the SRA kept a straight bat, with ­chairman Charles Plant saying: “I’m pleased that the SRA and the Law ­Society […] have been able to resolve some longstanding issues […] and have agreed to put in place arrangements that will reinforce the SRA’s ­operational independence.”

SRA chief executive Antony Townsend added that the new post of director of organisation will “sit in the neutral centre” between the SRA and the Law Society.

Regardless, this latest round of Chancery Lane reshuffling will be a strong test of any spirit of détente with the SRA and its bid to sell itself to the wider ­solicitors’ profession.

The reshuffle: who’s affected?

Moving out…
Steve Jeffree, the current operations ­director, along with group chief ­information ­officer and director of ­communications Stephen Ward, are “affected ­immediately by the change”, according to a Law Society internal memo seen by The Lawyer. They will both leave Chancery Lane by the end of the year.

That memo also states that “transition arrangements” are being discussed with Peter Beddows, the current group finance director, and Lorraine Jones, group HR director, with the latter said to be “retiring from the organisation in April 2012”.

Moving down…
Mark Stobbs continues as director of legal policy, but he will no longer sit at the ­management top table.

Likewise, the memo states that the role of director of government relations is to be shifted a notch down and potentially reformed more profoundly. Hudson’s memo to staff states that he is “in discussion” with the current incumbent, longstanding Chancery Lane official Russell Wallman, “about alterations to his role”.

Moving in…
Headhunters are instructed to scour the land for three high-fliers to fill the new roles of chief of corporate affairs, chief of commercial affairs and director of organisation services. Those three will join Hudson on a new top-level executive board.