This week is a watershed for the Law Society. Solicitors have just received their ballot papers for the election of office holders. Last year a president was elected by just 18 per cent of the profession – it would be a tragedy if the decision was made again by so few people.
It has not been a successful year. The Law Society has been divided as never before and a once respected institution has become discredited.
Over the past 12 months it has become clear that new leadership is needed to represent the profession in the coming challenges it will face – legal aid, reform in family law and civil justice, continuing competition for business, and a general election.
Last year, the first big election promise made by Martin Mears and Robert Sayer was to raise conveyancing fees. But the law controlling what we can and cannot do is unambiguous and in the past year they have had to be reminded of it by the Master of the Rolls and by counsel's opinion. The profession is not allowed to use its powers to restrict numbers entering the profession or rig the conveyancing market.
Nonetheless, we have some objectives in common with Mears and Sayer. We both oppose limiting legal aid to a small number of franchised firms and if the Law Society has been guilty of financial mismanagement over the Regis computer system or anything else, we both want to sort it out – every pound spent must give value for money.
But it is unacceptable that our opponents' manifestos should quote selectively and misleadingly from a report about Regis, which they agreed should be confidential, to give themselves political advantage.
Mears thinks of the society as a remote and reviled bureaucracy in which he has no pride or membership. Hence he sows discord, promoting schisms and demoralising everybody.
We stand for a Law Society capable of giving its best to members. If staff are working in an atmosphere of demotivation, they are in no position to serve the members in the way they should. We will manage change so as to remotivate staff and carry the council with us.
One of the good things about the Law Society is the accumulated wisdom and experience of its members. It is this resource which, working together, we can use to bring practical help to solicitors.
My campaign has made available a business plan to do just that. Point by point, month by month, we show how our manifesto policies will be implemented, capitalising on what is good about the Law Society.
A year from now people can judge us against that plan. By the end of 1996 we will, with the new secretary general, have rationalised the organisation of the Law Society to bring all 'help' teams together in one department, using existing staff and a conveyancing help unit.
We will have set financial targets to make the society 5 per cent more efficient each year for the next five years.
By the end of 1997 we will have established at least 20 graduate career advice services to help match supply and demand for training places.
The Law Society cannot deliver food parcels to its members in the form of enforceable scale fees and protection against competition. But it can and should deliver support to solicitors to help them restore their profit and pride.
That is why this election is crucial. One candidate, Anthony Bogan, openly declares himself in favour of a separate trade union for solicitors and Sayer has also gone on record supporting that approach.
However, there is a greater danger that if the Law Society continues to behave like a trade union, the same result will be forced on us by the Government and we will be stripped of our regulatory power and influence.
If the profession wishes to keep control of its destiny it must vote for us.