Chancery lane's dream team?

As ballot papers go out for another Law Society election, the Lawyer begins its election coverage by looking at the current state of the Law Society and asking whether Michael Mathews, Robert Sayer and Kamlesh Bahl can turn the society around.

They make an odd alliance and appear the most unlikely of reformers.

But Michael Mathews, standing for president, Robert Sayer, vice president, and Kamlesh Bahl, deputy vice-president, are united in being quietly confident that they can achieve what countless solicitors before them have failed to – make the Law Society of England and Wales efficient, credible and, perhaps most importantly of all, relevant to the profession.

Just what a sorry state the society is in is damningly revealed by its own research.

Findings from focus groups have found that it is viewed as unhelpful, poor at promoting and representing the profession, and unwilling to listen to its members. It is a message constantly reinforced by solicitors' comments to The Lawyer through letters and personal comments.

Yet most solicitors have hardly raised an eyebrow at a Chancery Lane culture and attitude that would be wholly unacceptable in the businesses they run. For example, despite his efforts, Sayer, the society's treasurer, cannot find out exactly how many staff work at Chancery Lane.

From the ill-fated high street computer project which wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds to the £500m shortfall in the Solicitors Indemnity Fund (SIF), Chancery Lane has shown itself to be long on committees but short on solutions to the profession's problems. The result is that its standing among the wider public and at Westminster has been diminished.

The Government treated the society with near contempt in leaking its radical legal aid shake-up to the press a day before it was due to announce it at the Solicitors' Annual Conference last October. The Government then attempted to push its proposals through without any real consultation.

“They wouldn't have got away with it with anyone else,” admits one senior council member bitterly.

The clamour for an end to self-regulation through the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) is also increasing, with the Fabian Society the latest to call for change.

Incumbent president Phillip Sycamore concedes that the society's rather comfortable house is far from being in order.

“Let's get real about making the profession fit for the 21st century, because we are deluding ourselves if we think we already are,” he told practitioners last year.

Sycamore has implemented a three-year review to make the society “more effective, more efficient and, above all, more relevant to those it serves”. Though taking three years to review how to make a organisation more “efficient” and “effective” seems like just another Chancery Lane contradiction.

If all goes to their plans, Mathews, Sayer and Bahl will see this review through and try to reform the Law Society.

Officially, though, the trio are not even an alliance. Mathews reacted sharply to suggestions in The Lawyer late last year when we suggested the three were running as a combined ticket. This is because he did not want to be seen as trying to block any opposition rather than not wanting to stand with Bahl.

The deal for Bahl to stand was brokered by Sayer, Chancery Lane's answer to Peter Mandelson. Sayer has been a key player in what passes for Law Society politics over the past three years. He has moved from being the young upstart who broke long-standing tradition and stood as deputy vice-president to maverick Martin Mears in 1995, to becoming a virtual pillar of the Law Society Council and deputy vice-president.

His campaigning for reform of the Law Society has caught on among fellow councillors, and the message of a change of culture from the one-time outsider is becoming popular.

Like Mears he has something of the “cloth cap” feeling for the “solicitor in the high street” and can articulate their frustration at the state of conveyancing or SIF. A small firm solicitor himself, he seems most happy when not dealing with clients and instead is in the midst of a row over Law Society overspending on Regis or SIF.

Wearing a Teflon overcoat, Sayer can ignite a controversy and then walk away while hapless colleagues stand red-faced and embarrassed at the ineptitude exposed.

Yet occasionally, Sayer, who can sense even a slight change in the political wind, gets caught out. His drive last year to prove that a drop in conveyancing claims would mean that the hike in SIF contributions could be cut or delayed came to nothing.

He has half-jokingly suggested that his ultimate aim would be to leave Chancery Lane as president in 1999 and lock the door behind him having successfully closed the place down.

Yet that would shut out Bahl, who is on track to become the Law Society's first woman president in 2000.

Bahl has already managed one remarkable achievement in her career – the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has annoyed readers of The Guardian and pleased Daily Mail ones by moving her organisation to a more centrist ground.

In fact the potentially troublesome EOC has remained remarkably controversy free under her chairmanship – a quality that many in the Law Society will see makes her ideal for the top job.

Yet for a woman who describes herself as a “conservative campaigner”, she is surprisingly determined to shake up the Law Society's legal palace. She is frustrated with the tortuous decision-making process and lack of information given to councillors.

A determined steely character, Bahl can also charm, and has powerful cheer-leading fans such as former Conservative MP, now Lord, David Hunt, who described her to the Lawyer as “one of Britain's leading legal figures”.

Bahl has privately described the Law Society to colleagues as being one of the most vicious places at which she has worked and thinks that there is a clique of half a dozen councillors opposed to change. Her critics argue that she does not speak out at council meetings, and although Bahl bristles at this suggestion she has done little to disprove them.

One person that the Chancery Lane spin doctors may well hope will not speak out too often is Mathews. With his mutton chop whiskers and forthright manner, Mathews comes across more like a Devon farmer than a partner in one of the world's largest firms.

His style is often blunt and straightforward, and he likes to let his record speak for itself, which is dangerous as it is not exactly a collection of greatest hits.

Colleagues say many members of the council are unfairly vicious about him, but unlike others in the Law Society he seems to be at Chancery Lane to work for the profession rather than raise his own profile.

Still, his cause was not helped when a high-ranking partner at Clifford Chance, quizzed by the Lawyer, could not remember that Mathews was vice-president. The anecdote was repeated in front of Mathews at the Local Government Conference earlier this year and he was clearly not amused.

At that conference he got up and started by saying he was not a politician, and then went on to prove it with a ill-judged speech that alienated and infuriated local government solicitors.

The Chancery Lane spin doctors, who have openly prided themselves in the past year on keeping president Sycamore out of the legal media's reach, may right now be building a public relations freezer in which to put Mathews for a year.

Yet a straightforward, plain-speaking president may be just what a often back-slapping self-congratulatory society needs to give it a true shake-up.

A successful City partner and president who confronts the Government, the profession and especially the Chancery Lane clique with some home truths without the political niceties could prove hugely unpopular – and highly effective.

Michael Mathews

Works: partner at Clifford Chance

Strengths: forthright and not a politician

Weaknesses: forthright and not a politician

Quote: “The profession needs continuity, experience and the ability to lead a variety of teams dealing with a host of issues.”

Robert Sayer

Works: partner at Sayer Moore & Co

Strengths: able to root out ineptitude and waste, a genuine reformer

Weaknesses: often a political loner, and may serve more useful purpose kicking the legal establishment rather than sitting down with it

Quote: “I wish it were otherwise but the harsh truth is that Law Society politics are the same as politics anywhere else. Petty, undignified, dominated by ambition.”

Kamlesh Bahl

Works: chair of Equal Opportunity Commission (term expires 1999)

Strengths: determined to shake up the image of the Law Society, has a proven track record for implementing changes at the EOC

Weaknesses: seen as aligned to the Conservatives. Criticism about a lack of private practice experience.

Quote: “I never go in on the women's ticket but I go into this election, I believe, because there is a body of experience and expertise that I have.”