Limbering up for the race to the presidency

Pity Law Society president Tony Girling. He is only halfway through his 12-month term, and already contenders for his job are coming forward, lobbying calls are being made, letter knives sharpened and plots hatched.

It has been speculated incorrectly that Robert Sayer leaked his intention to stand for president to The Lawyer last week – in fact, he had hoped keep the plan secret until nearer the July election, or at least until he had finalised who his deputies would be.

However, the revelation of Sayer's desire to stand have sparked feverish phone calls among council members as prospective candidates dip toes into the political waters.

Such activity would have been unthinkable just one-and-a-half years ago, but then self-styled legal revolutionary Mar- tin Mears broke ranks and won the top job.

Eileen Pembridge, who stood against Mears, points out that in a very short time, the election for president has moved from one extreme to the other. What was once a secret – almost Masonic – ritual, is now a modern political process, with all the Machiavellian manoeuvring and backstabbing that entails.

Pembridge, who will not stand this year, but has not ruled herself out of doing so in 1998, is concerned the Law Society has been plunged into personality politics, with candidates pursuing issues purely for personal gain.

“If you get the wrong president saying stupid things it can be very negative for the profession,” she says.

Last week, she sent a letter to Sayer stressing the need to keep some Law Society matters confidential. She is also concerned that some able members of the Law Society council, who would make good leaders, have been frightened off standing for office because of the adverse publicity surrounding the position.

But if presidents risk unpopularity once they have filled the top post, in order to be successful, candidates must have populist appeal.

On Tuesday, Sayer will talk at a conveyancing conference organised by Phillip Hodges partner Michael Garson, where delegates will discuss the establishment of property centres. There have even been suggestions that disgruntled conveyancers could form a political powerbase which would vote members on to the council and expect them to follow a particular manifesto.

“I don't like the suggestion of a political body. It isn't,” says Sayer when questioned on his presidential plans, adding: “There are a range of people who are unhappy with what the Law Society is doing.”

Yet Tony Girling's recent meeting with 25 senior partners of medium-sized City firms shows that there are not so much a range of people interested in the election, as a wider range of interest groups, each with their own agenda.

“I think it will become more difficult for a president to be all things to all men,” says council member Lucy Winskell, former chair of the Young Solicitors' Group.

However, there is no shortage of candidates considering standing for election to the presidency, with some predicting it may again be a three-horse race, with Mears, intriguingly, now “reserving his position”.

One possible surprise candidate is Davies Arnold Cooper's flamboyant senior partner David McIntosh.

As for the holidaying Tony Girling, conventional wisdom, or at least informed speculation within the Law Society, is that he that will not stand again.

Deputy vice-president, Clifford Chance partner Michael Matthews, has adopted a “wait-and-see approach”. Meanwhile, vice president Phillip Sycamore, who, given his position, would once have been seen as the natural successor, is keeping his intentions to himself.