Leader with a mission to improve

Michael Mathews says he aims to build a Law Society which responds more effectively to the needs of the profession and raises the reputation of solicitors. Michael Mathews is president of the Law Society.

They say there is a Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times". Well, my year as president of the Law Society is certainly going to be an interesting one.

As the leader of the profession I will have to tackle the challenges of the year head on. The legal landscape is changing almost daily. We will have to be agile and flexible in our responses to the threats and opportunities of change.

These changes include the Government's proposals regarding legal aid, the proposed extension of rights of audience, the possibility of multidisciplinary practices (MDPs) and the future of professional indemnity insurance.

The campaign on legal aid will continue to be overseen by the Justice Task Force set up by my predecessor, Phillip Sycamore. We will seek to build on the successes of last year, when the task force's work played a significant part in bringing about a number of modifications to the original proposals, including a deferral of the removal of legal aid from many civil cases. This year the issue of contracting will come to the fore.

The further extension of the higher courts rights of audience offers exciting prospects for those solicitors who want to practise in this field. We will need to devise rules which do not impose any unnecessary restrictions, while still ensuring that proper standards are maintained.

I hope that we will be able to find a satisfactory way to permit MDPs, so that those solicitors who believe that practising in that form will benefit their clients, may do so. However, we have to find a way to protect clients from conflicts of interest, ensure that legal advice given to clients benefits from legal professional privilege, and, above all, ensure that solicitor members of MDPs are free to advise or represent a client without pressures to consider anything other than the interests of that client.

The issues regarding indemnity insurance are well known. The council will be debating these at its meeting on 24 September.

Whatever the decision, it is unlikely to please everyone, but I believe that it must ensure that any cross subsidies, over and above those inherent in commercial insurance, are kept to an absolute minimum. In particular, those firms with really bad records must either reform themselves or be prevented from continuing to practise.

As well as dealing with these challenges my fellow office-holders and I want to carry forward the process, following the customer focus review conducted some months ago, of making the Law Society more responsive to the needs of the profession. As well as looking at the committee structure and other issues relating to the governance of the society, this will also involve an overall review of all Law Society policies. This will be a joint effort by office holders, council members and Law Society staff.

I start my presidency full of ambition for the profession. I will take the lead in turning around the public perception of solicitors.

For too long now we have been seen, not as the champions of justice but as the financial beneficiaries of it. With the support of Robert Sayer, Kamlesh Bahl and the whole of the council, we can get across the message that lawyers make a positive contribution to a democratic society which is based on the rule of law. We provide access to justice for those who need to enforce their rights and assistance to enable the business community to negotiate and complete their transactions in an efficient and orderly manner.