As we explore better ways for the solicitors' profession to run itself, we are compelled to confront a paradox. Solicitors expect (rightly) to have a growing say in the decisions which affect their profession and its future. But commercial pressures mean that fewer solicitors feel able to spare the time to take part in making those decisions, either nationally or locally.
The problem is particularly acute at national level. Despite the controversies of recent years (or maybe, partly because of them), some Law Society constituencies have been hard put to find one person prepared to stand for the council, let alone two candidates to compete in a democratic election.
Many of those who do make time have to suffer income cuts, as their fee-earning time is affected. Sometimes, sympathetic partners or employers share the burden with them. Increasingly, we understand, unsympathetic partners or employers make them take a cut in profits or pay.
How long can we go on like this? I do not pretend to know all the answers to these difficulties, but I would like to open the debate by putting forward some ideas for discussion.
It is crucial for the profession's future that we solve these problems. Otherwise, we will be left with an unhappy choice between decisions delayed, decisions not taken or decisions left to paid employees, unelected by the profession. One way to lighten the load is to spread the burden more widely.
The more solicitors that are involved, the less each individual has to do. That is why I support enthusiastically the Law Society's proposal to create sections in order to bring together solicitors with similar interests and concerns, whether in a specialised area such as probate, an activity such as practice management or a type of practice. As well as improving two-way communication, sections can spread the load by getting more solicitors involved, each of whom can do a little in the area which interests him or her most.
For this to succeed, the Law Society must have the courage to give sections a democratic structure, a meaningful role and some real power.
Another way is to consider fair compensation for those who give up very substantial amounts of time to run the profession's affairs.
It would be unrealistic to contemplate the cost of fairly compensating all 75 council members – one of the reasons why some have advocated a smaller council.
But, bearing in mind the diversity of the profession, reducing the council's size might result in the interests of some parts of the profession not being properly represented.
It might be better perhaps, to build on the new elected policy committee, which has already been created and is working successfully as part of the recent reforms. Why not consider letting that committee adopt a more detailed role, leaving the full council intact to discharge the lighter burden of discussing broad issues of principle and ensuring the policy committee keeps on track.
There is no disguising the burden this would throw on the members of the policy committee and the chairmen of the major committees, but it would be more manageable to compensate the time of this smaller number.
We will always need a limited number of people at the centre who can ensure that there is an elected hand on the tiller at all times. To ensure this smaller number do not make a career out of it, thereby losing touch with their professional base, everyone might be limited to a maximum term.
That would reinforce the current trend to give promising council members responsible posts quite quickly, and would recognise that, for many, a shorter, more involved term on the council may be much more realistic and acceptable to partners and employers. It would also give them an incentive to speed projects through in order to make their mark in the limited time available.
The improvement of communications between the society and council members is an essential step in speeding projects through. To achieve this, an effective electronic communication system is essential.
Although time and money are clearly major considerations, they are not the only ones. We need to understand better why solicitors from certain areas are particularly reluctant to come forward and make a deliberate effort to deal with their particular problems and concerns. It is your Law Society. What do you think?