Tears for Mears as protest gives Girling a go

While Martin Mears clears his presidential desk and heads home, Richard Wachman reflects on the exit of the new broom and wonders whether those who swept him from power will get what they wanted from the new incumbent, Tony Girling

“We all love Martin Mears here,” declared my solicitor recently when I stopped off at his High Street office in Hertfordshire to sign the paperwork on my new house.

Over the years he has seen conveyancing fees plummet and competition intensify.

When Mears was elected president a year ago, with a mandate to shake Chancery Lane out of its “smug complacency”, he could not have been more delighted.

Mears' defeat last week at the hands of Tony Girling will come as a blow to him and solicitors at thousands of other small firms who saw him as an anti-establishment hero.

But Mears was toppled because the Law Society is a diverse body with members working at practices with interests very different to those of small High Street firms.

The increased turn-out at last week's election is almost certainly because big City and regional firms mobilised in large numbers to vote against Mears.

In 1995, the turn-out was 32 per cent, this time the figure rose to 42 per cent. It would be surprising if the the exhortations of senior City partners for their colleagues to get out and vote for Girling had not had some effect.

The question is whether a vote for Girling is anything more than a protest. Traditionally, City partners have taken little or no interest in Chancery Lane. But Mears' outspoken views on the anti-discrimination industry and his gloves-off style of leadership made them feel, initially, mildly alarmed and then distinctly embarrassed. The same can be said for many medium-sized practices. But a vote because of those feelings is very different to a positive vote for Girling.

There is no doubt that some lawyers will be happy if Girling does nothing more than a statesman's job and keeps the Law Society out of the headlines. But for his part, Girling makes it clear that inaction is not part of his agenda. His manifesto makes a number of pledges, even if details are not always forthcoming.

Girling intends to spread unity where Mears sewed discord, make progress on conveyancing, and rally the entire profession behind the society's campaign on legal aid.

He also makes statements on IT, training and help for the grass roots. Only time will tell whether progress will be made.

Meanwhile, Mears and his supporters will remain on the council, as will third presidential challenger, Tony Bogan, who failed to find support for a split in the society's regulatory and supervisory roles.

Their presence will serve as a reminder that the society's membership has very different priorities. Friction is inevitable, and Girling will not be helped by the fact that many officials in Chancery Lane are de facto Mears appointees.