Call me cynical, but I would imagine that given the choice between trying to sort out the Law Society or settling back to some anaesthetic-free root canal surgery, most people would opt for the latter.
Viewed by the outside world as a bunch of incompetent whingers who could not run the proverbial in a brewery, the Law Society had a lot of ground to make up, both inside and outside the profession, when Janet Paraskeva became its first chief executive last October. While she had faced criticism before in her previous role as director for England of the National Lottery Charities Board, with Daily Mail-esque outrage over grants to lesbian single mother groups and the like, with this position there was nobody who would take her side automatically. The public and the profession would accuse her of moving too slowly, while those used to a cosy life in Chancery Lane would see her as the bogeyman.
The Office for the Supervision of Solicitors was on a final warning from the Government to sort its act out; an employment tribunal hearing, brought by former vice-president Kamlesh Bahl, was just about to start; and the Solicitors’ Indemnity Fund (SIF) had just ended its life amid a huge fuss.
But although Paraskeva was aware of all that through reading about the Law Society, she says the reality when she joined was actually a lot worse than she had imagined. Which is like going for root canal surgery only to discover that the dentist has also booked you in to have all your toenails pulled out.
“I’d read a lot about the state [the society] was in, so I was mostly ready for it,” she says. “There was just a muddle; there was nothing bad or intrinsically wrong. The place had grown like topsy and hadn’t been managed.”
Part of the muddle was that the financing of the Law Society’s various committees was conducted on a system of individual requests. The money would be handed out without too much attention to whether it was actually in the coffers. “Where that got the organisation was into deficit funding, so I’ve introduced budgeting,” says Paraskeva, with not even a hint of irony at the previous situation.
This is not something that has gone down particularly well in some circles. The Equal Opportunities Committee, for example, has said that it will now not be meeting because its funding has been withdrawn. “The thing that’s been missed is that as well as continuing the Equal Opportunities Committee, we’ve put the issue onto the board,” says Paraskeva. “I’m committed to making sure that equal opportunities works throughout the organisation and isn’t just tucked away into one committee.”
There is something that does not quite compute in all of this. The Equal Opportunities Committee says that it now has no funding; Paraskeva says it has. The committee says that it has ceased to meet; Paraskeva says that it was scheduled to meet four days before this interview.
Paraskeva says that she is moving equal opportunities onto the main board, but the secretary of the committee, who Paraskeva moved to work on the board, left last Friday. Someone is spinning heavily here, but it is hard to tell which side.
But Paraskeva is not about to apologise to the committee. Her jaw sets and she becomes quite forceful when the issue is raised. “If the Equal Opportunities Committee didn’t like the corporate planning that the society’s now going to use, then that’s a shame,” she says. “I want to run an organisation that’s economically viable.”
Paraskeva stresses the commitment of the Law Society to equal opportunities, a necessary move in the shadow of the tribunal finding that Bahl suffered sexual and racial discrimination over incidents that happened, Paraskeva points out, during a time when the Equal Opportunities Committee was in place. A new set of operating plans has been drawn up for each department – a thick folder-full with checklists, which Paraskeva shows to me. She is also launching a study into how the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) handles complaints, and whether men and women are handled differently.
But, points out Eileen Pembridge, chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Committee, Paraskeva is treating equal opportunities as merely a human resource issue, whereas if the Law Society is to represent the profession, the remit needs to be wider. Pembridge also raises concerns about the dividing line between staffing and funding issues, which are the legitimate concern of a chief executive, and policy issues that need to be debated by the council of the Law Society.
Moving on, Paraskeva is not about to furnish me with her viewpoint of the Bahl saga. “I wasn’t here for Kamlesh Bahl, and that’s a long time ago in an organisation. My job is to bring us out of that era. The verdict was greeted with disappointment,” she says, making it perfectly clear that the subject is history despite the verdict coming out only days earlier.
Chancery Lane must have been humming with muttered comments about Paraskeva over the last few months. She is the sort of person who is exactly right for the task but is not prepared to join in a game just because that is the game that people happen to have been playing for years. For instance, at Law Society black tie functions, Paraskeva does not pull out a taffeta number, preferring instead to don a black trouser suit. Can you imagine? It’s just not cricket, old chap.
Some insiders at the Law Society are concerned that she has been given a free rein for too long, and while the structure of the body did need attention, she is riding roughshod over the democratic processes of the society.
There are also mutterings that Paraskeva does not know enough about the workings of the profession. While she has focused on building up the society’s public face, critics believe that she has lost sight of the fact that the body is there to represent its members.
Whatever the truth of the matter, Paraskeva has a buzzy energy about her and zips about in a way that must bug the hell out of cobwebbed corners of the Law Society, where it would be easy to believe everything still stopped for high tea. Paraskeva is certainly impressive and very likeable. She also talks at a rate of knots. And when she talks, it is easy to see why the Law Society needed a chief executive. Paraskeva is not a lawyer so she does not view the profession as sacred. But at the same time, she says that her main priority is to ensure that the profession’s reputation is vastly improved, and she is obviously committed to doing that.
The biggest hurdle in that quest is getting the OSS sorted out. So far it has had two ‘final’ warnings from the Government. But Paraskeva claims that by September there will be no outstanding pre-2000 cases. “It was lovely to hear the ombudsman say that we’re out of crisis and it’s a shame that some of the broadsheets didn’t pick up on that,” she says. “Complaints against solicitors are going down, and that means that the work solicitors are doing is beginning to take effect – 67 per cent of cases are dealt with in three months.”
All marvellous news, of course, apart from Paraskeva’s omission of certain other things that the ombudsman reported. While the OSS has seen a 6 per cent drop in the number of complaints and the society has exceeded its target of handling 1,650 cases in the last year by 28, the ombudsman was satisfied with the way complaints were handled in only 57 per cent of cases. There is also the argument, as with reported crime figures, that if people do not believe they are going to get a satisfactory response, then they stop complaining.
One of the problems of public perception, says Paraskeva, is the muddled attitude of Joe Public to the legal profession. “If you talk to someone about their solicitor, people will knock them, but if their son or daughter is a solicitor then they’re very proud,” she says. “Lawyers have been good press fodder, so if something goes wrong, the image of the solicitor is that they’ve been part of the wrongdoing and profited from it. We’ve got to get that perception put right and get the message out about the pro bono work that lawyers do.
“There are those who work in the City and bring thousands in invisible money into the economy. Yes, they earn a lot of money because that’s what the profession dictates. But at the other end of the scale, we have people who earn less than teachers when they come out of training and less than plumbers when they’re called out in the middle of the night.”
Who knows, in future the Solicitors’ Benevolent Fund might rival the RSPCA for heartstring appeal.