Law Society elections. Electing on policy or personality?

The challengers: if Michael Napier and David McIntosh are elected, they plan to take on the Government – not the Law Society. It costs the Law Society £100,000 to hold an election for each of the three presidential offices. For this reason, in the eyes of some members of the profession, anyone forcing a vote needs a very good motive.

So just how do Michael Napier, challenging Michael Mathews for the presidency, and David McIntosh, up against Robert Sayer for vice-president, justify their actions?

It was, after all, David McIntosh who wrote an impassioned plea to Martin Mears in The Lawyer last April, calling on him to stand down as a candidate and embrace coalition politics. So what has changed?

In his manifesto Mathews says that you could not fit a “playing card” between his policies and those of Napier. Both sides have made the same noises about the obvious problems.

Of the Solicitors Indemnity Fund, Mathews says he is determined to end cross-subsidy, preventing solicitors with appalling claims records from practising at the expense of the majority. McIntosh's version states that he wants to provide reasonable protection against solicitors' negligence while meeting the demands of all solicitors on costs and terms. So, no great gulf in philosophy.

One difference is that of emphasis. Mathews and Sayer are reformers. They see the enemy within and their primary task is to modernise the Law Society, making it relevant to the rank and file of the profession.

Talking to Napier and McIntosh, one senses a satisfaction with the work of the society. Napier has said opponents are “looking down the wrong end of the telescope”.

They think the Law Society does a reasonably good job and that any reform can wait. Of far greater menace are the Government's plans for withdrawing legal aid, extending conditional fees and reforming the system of civil justice.

So while Mathews' first manifesto promise is to review all Law Society policies, Napier's manifesto immediately lays into the Government.

The underlying difference is politics. While Napier and McIntosh make noises about not personalising the election, their motives are personal. They do not like Robert Sayer.

Napier and McIntosh were part of Sayer's campaign team in last year's election. But some council members complain of Sayer's lack of collective responsibility and a willingness to fight his battles in public.

The Law Society launches frequent witch hunts among its staff when it deems damaging information has found its way out into the wider profession. Sayer is worried that Napier and McIntosh now want to scupper his planned reforms.

While there is sympathy with Mathews, the Napier/McIntosh team has been asking council members: “Do you really want Sayer as president in one year?”

So this election comes down not to what solicitors want the society to do, but how they want it run.

Yet while this election may be concerned with style and ego rather than policies, it will have a real impact on the profession.

The Law Society needs a strong, vocal leader to take on a government whose tactics are about as clean as those of the Argentinian football team.

Napier may be seen by some as a creature of the old guard, but his public image is far from stuffy. At last year's Solicitors' Annual Conference, Sycamore was close to floundering as the media grilled him about the Government's legal aid plans.

Napier was wheeled out to steady the ship. Few can match his understanding of conditional fees. He quite literally wrote the book on them – Conditional fees: A Survival Guide.

Within the profession his background would seem to offer something for everyone. Since 1973, when he joined Irwin Mitchell, his firm has grown from a high street practice doing legal aid work into a major player with 73 partners and 1,000 staff. For the past 15 years he has led the firm as senior partner.

If he has a major weakness it is a perceived lack of fire. Napier is “respected” rather than liked. Society colleagues say he can be short on personal warmth. Yet during a recent candidate's debate it was Napier who chatted and joked with journalists while rival Mathews kept his own counsel.

One man not known for keeping quiet is McIntosh, senior partner of City firm Davies Arnold Cooper. He is one of the society's bruisers. He can talk non-stop, crushing interruptions until his points are hammered home. Politically, he is not afraid to be outspoken.

Last month, concerned about the lack of allegiance shown by Kamlesh Bahl to either ticket, McIntosh penned a letter demanding that she either inform him of her neutrality or join their slate. If she did not, a candidate might have to be found to stand against her.

Like Napier, McIntosh is an unlikely old guard member, elected when Mark Sheldon resigned the City seat two years ago.

McIntosh had written a piece for The Times which concluded: “At the moment many of us no longer believe the Law Society has anything worthwhile to offer.” Sheldon told him to put up or shut up. Working inside the society has since softened his need for reform.

One complicating factor is David Keating, standing against Bahl for deputy vice-president. Although Keating has expressed a preference for Napier, he is not part of the Napier/McIntosh slate and his fight with Bahl is more of an interesting diversion.

There is nothing unspoken about Keating's objection to Bahl. He says that as chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, she is too remote from the concerns of the profession, particularly those of the high street practitioner.

Sporting an enviable handlebar moustache, Keating is described by one colleague as “a foreigner's idea of a typical English lawyer”. He has impeccable society credentials, has chaired the international committee for the past three years and is widely seen as well meaning and decent, with no Machiavellian agenda.

But few look to Keating to set the world alight. When running for deputy vice-president alongside Martin Mears last year, he was unmemorable. One council member says: “He was cannon fodder really, there to make up the numbers.”

But can any of them win? Napier and McIntosh claim the support of council members and many staff at the Law Society back them after a year under the fanatically frugal rule of treasurer Sayer. It is not in the interests of Law Society staff to have a reformer at the helm.

Outside Chancery Lane, much depends on whether the traditionally apathetic City firms opt to support local lad McIntosh. Will they choose him over Mathews?

Yet Napier also has a undoubted passion to fight for a profession that has so often been a little backward in coming forward to public, press and governmental criticism of lawyers.

And his high recognition factor and success within the profession may help him with solicitors who will just glance at the voting form.

Still, at £100,000 a pop, apathetic solicitors may prefer no election at all to one that comes down to personalities, not policy.

Michael Napier

Works: senior partner at Irwin Mitchell

Strengths: recognised expert on conditional fees, taken seriously by the Govt and media

Weaknesses: has forced an unwanted election, identified with old guard

Quote: “The Government calls us complacent; at almost every turn the ground is being cut from under our feet. No solicitor is immune…”

David Mcintosh

Works: senior partner at Davies Arnold Cooper

Strengths: strong ties with the City. Not shy of making his views known

Weaknesses: in a short time has taken to Law Society politics with relish

Quote: “The Law Society, as never before, needs proven leadership at the helm…”

David Keating

Works: in sole practice

Strengths: broad range of practice experience and heavy involvement in Law Society committees. Brings in the views of the North.

Weaknesses: few obvious, other than profile. In a more genial Buggins-turn age the job would have been his.

Quote: “The profession should be represented by practitioners who have been exposed to the rigours of practice…”