Talking about your generation

The Law Society today faces many problems. This is nothing new; it did on a greater scale and in a more difficult context in the 1930s and 1940s. Then, by an concerted effort, the society strengthened its modest resources in order to cope.

Today, despite the enormous resources available to it, the society seems unable to avoid exposure to ridicule. As one who helped substantially with the midwifery from 1938 to 1951 and was involved in bringing the society into the 20th century, I am appalled by what is happening and offer a few suggestions.

Clearly some of the problems we hoped we had killed in the Thirties and Forties have returned. Those early days were difficult for ordinary solicitors. Problems included: extensive undercutting of conveyancing fees, with pressures from lenders and builder vendors who offered "free" conveyancers; ambulance chasers persuading the injured to agree to share their dangers (if any) with unscrupulous intermediaries; and litigation effectively barred except to the very rich or those fortunate very poor who won help – at no profit to their lawyers – under the then Poor Persons procedure (which led to strike action by solicitors in some areas).

In addition, criminal legal aid was in its infancy and assistant solicitors were "ten a penny" as jobs were scarce.

Worst of all, there was the wide public scandal of embezzlement by solicitors, some planned, some negligent, but none covered by the profession as a whole.

The solicitors Acts of 1932 and 1933 offered hope that the society's council could bear the burden of putting the legal house in order: the former tidied up a series of statutes going back to 1839; the latter was designed to stop solicitors acting as bankers. By 1938 a strong council was in place, determined to do whatever had to be done.

By the time I left the Law Society, the following had been put in place: necessary statutory and subordinate legislation for many purposes had been sought, obtained and implemented; the profession had been persuaded a Compensation Fund was needed and that fund established; requirements were in place for annual accountants' reports on the client and trust accounts of solicitors; the council was entrusted with wider powers to grant or refuse practising certificates; practitioners' powers to quote excessively low conveyancing fees were limited by practice rules; minimum scale fees laid down by local law societies were backed up by the council; the society's School of Law had been reformed and rehoused; the society's relations with the approved law schools had been reviewed and updated; contacts with other professional bodies had been improved; public relations was treated with greater understanding; courses of lectures on new legislation were being offered to practitioners; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the legal aid scheme had been designed, accepted by Government and implemented.

All that was done despite the problems of WWII, such as implementing government policy for military service deferment for solicitors and clerks in some cases and the establishment and operation of the Services Divorce Department.

The strength of the profession then lay in the fierce independence of its members, who were not easily led or driven. The society's main problem was to persuade solicitors to act together in the public interest – ultimately identical with their own – while not weakening the basic strength.

From presidents through a united council to a competent staff of non-bureaucrats there was a realisation of the serious disaster to the country if the profession were to go under.

The idea that the Law Society was the profession's servant rather than its master was, I believe, dominant if unspoken. The principle was that the president, council and committee members brought their updated practical experience at the coal face of legal practice to problems, while staff contributed other skills and services, such as drafting minutes, reports, legislation, dissemination of information and general administration.

The lessons to be learned for today include: acknowledging the follies of internecine strife and trying to fight on too many external fronts at once; the absurdity of failing to recognise traps set by politicians and others with interests in preventing a united front of the judiciary, the Bar, solicitors and legal academics; the scandal of allowing students to start expensive courses before they have secured places where, if successful, they can obtain necessary practical experience; the foolishness of trying to rubbish the female half of the profession and playing one sector off against another; the absurdity of spending vast sums on trying to improve the profession's image before it has got its act together again.

My generation managed to sort out these problems. Yours ought to as well, and with greater ease.