In its 179-year history, the Law Society of England and Wales has faced a number of challenges, but Sir David Clementi’s recommendations in his review of the regulation of the legal profession could be the biggest. They may well sound a death-knell for the society’s regulatory function. At the very least, the review signals major change for the organisation. The prospect of leading the solicitors’ profession through the Clementi review period, then, is one that might well terrify many people, but not the Law Society’s new president Edward Nally. Speaking at the start of his term of office in July, Nally is clearly relishing the prospect of the challenges before him. This is a man prepared to tackle thorny issues head-on.
“A key theme for me,” he says of his presidential year, “is actually taking forward the question of how the Law Society can both regulate and represent. What’s the best way of doing that?”
It is a difficult question, but Nally might well be the person to answer it. A partner in Bolton firm Fieldings Porter, Nally was first elected to the Law Society Council a decade ago. He admits that initially he was unsure of the role and focus of a council member, but he says that “gradually, as these things happen, you tend to start beavering away in the background”. He adds: “I found myself working in a relatively low-key way to start with, and then gradually I started to get joined to more senior roles.”
Nally began as chairman of the society’s Conveyancing and Land Law Committee and was then given the task of chairing the Regulation Review Working Party. This group has been involved in rewriting the solicitors’ guide to conduct – a task now complete and undergoing consultation.
It was due to his work on regulatory matters that colleagues suggested Nally ought to stand for election as deputy vice-president. Although he says modestly that he did not expect to be elected, he stood against four other candidates and won. But what makes this softly spoken Northerner a good figurehead to represent such a varied profession?
“I don’t have to be a high-flying commercial lawyer to understand the issues that affect high-flying commercial lawyers,” Nally claims. “I consider it’s my task to understand what the key issues are for the City and the high street and try and deliver them.”
Nally recognises that relationships between the City and the Law Society have not always been stellar, but he believes that there is more synergy between the requirements of the various sections of the profession than most people tend to believe. Regulation is one area where Nally thinks the Law Society should work with large firms to recognise the “realities of practice” in the City, and adjust the regulatory reach accordingly.
“What can we allow firms to do which maintains a professional stance, that doesn’t compromise all the things we hold dear – independence, integrity, all that stuff – but that nonetheless gives a modern response to the way in which we’re all regulated?” he asks.
“That’s a message that’s just as appealing to the high street as it is to the City.”
For the job of appealing to the City, there is the freshly completed work on conflicts and confidentiality. New rules were passed by the council on 15 July, eliminating the “veritable porridge” of guidance that Nally says existed until now. “It’s a rule that’s overdue to be passed, because I know that there’s an expectation that the Law Society should give clarity in this area,” he says. “We believe that we’ve found a set of rules and a form of words that meet the objectives of City firms in particular. It’s a significant piece of regulatory activity for the Law Society to have achieved.”
It is ironic that the Clementi review poses a very real threat to the society’s future role as regulator. Nally himself supports model B+, which would leave the society as regulator and representative, but which would split the two functions. He warns that the Law Society will see change in the next few years, whichever way the Clementi report goes.
“I don’t think the existing arrangement where we regulate and represent through our existing council, unchanged, is going to be sustainable in the medium term,” he says. “I say that with no disrespect to my council colleagues; I think there’s a perception issue that has to be addressed, and one person’s perception becomes another person’s reality.”
Perception is something that concerns Nally. He says negative messages about his profession are “wearisome”. He is planning to spend the first months of his presidency meeting solicitors and explaining what the Law Society is doing in a bid to improve the organisation’s function.
He defends the society’s performance on one of its key areas – complaints handling. In her recent report, the Legal Services Ombudsman Zahida Manzoor criticised the slow rate of improvement in this area, in particular that the Law Society failed to meet several targets set by the Department of Constitutional Affairs. It is a prickly issue and Nally admits that the society has had problems, but he maintains that things are getting better. “For as long as I’ve been around the Law Society, complaints handling and the delivering of it has been the Achilles’ heel of the profession,” he says. “I actually sincerely believe that the corner has been turned, and I don’t just say that out of misplaced optimism, I say that out of hard facts.”
He adds that money has been poured into the handling of complaints, and points out that responsibility does not lie solely on the Law Society’s shoulders. “My message to the profession would be to make sure to do everything in their power to help the Law Society by reducing the complaints about the profession,” he says. “At the end of the day, complaints are not created by the Law Society, they’re made to the Law Society. The responsibility of the Law Society having received those complaints is to deal with them in a more plain, efficient, simple way.”
Another message Nally wants to spread is that of equality and diversity. At the July council meeting, Lord Ouseley – formerly chair of the Commission for Racial Equality – presented his report into the society’s equality and diversity initiatives. Nally describes the issue as “very significant” and says that the Law Society has to lead the way in actively promoting equality.
It looks set to be a busy year for Nally, but he appears to be facing it with equanimity mixed with a certain amount of realism. He accepts that it will not be possible to carry out all of his aims, but wants to deliver something during the year, and he is looking forward to it.
“I think the job is fantastically engaging,” he says enthusiastically. “It brings you into contact with all sides of the profession – you meet some incredibly impressive people and you also see some more difficult stories and more difficult issues, and I find that fantastically stimulating.”
And what is his main aim for his year ahead? Surprisingly, it is not something directly connected to the Law Society. “If I had a general overview objective,” says Nally, “it would be trying to make people realise that there are opportunities for solicitors out there. If they make the right decisions and embrace the right ideas, and if they pursue their interests correctly, the opportunities are endless.” If only the same could be said of the Law Society.