A former Law Society president has accused its departing chief executive of holding ‘a gun at the head of council’, as Chancery Lane kicked off an enquiry to discover who leaked Catherine Dixon’s frank departing epistle. Catherine Baksi reports
It has been quite the start to the new year for the 191-year-old institution. Two years after taking up the reins, Catherine Dixon’s strongly worded letter sent to its staff and 100-strong council cited the Society’s failure to modernise its governance structure, and lambasted it as ‘moribund, old fashioned and bureaucratic’.
Behind the polite comments from the president, Robert Bourns, an email sent by a former president, Nick Fluck, seen by Legal Voice, reveals the irritation felt by some Chancery Lane insiders.
Four days after Dixon resigned, Fluck wrote: ‘The single biggest topic upon which I am being asked to comment on at the moment is governance reform for the Law Society, specifically arising from the publicization (sic) of your proposed departure by Neil Rose [who broke the story on the website Legal Futures], for which I know you are not responsible.‘
‘As you have effectively levelled a gun at the head of council, I think it is crucial that you should provide lines to take on both these issues please,‘ he continued. ‘Can you please confirm what steps are being taken to identify the source of the leak of confidential information to Mr Rose?‘
‘Council needs to be reassured that systems are in place to allow important topics to be discussed in confidence – and if a council member leaked that information, clearly provided by you in strict confidence, then their appointment should be terminated and their lack of probity reported to the SRA for consideration of their professional conduct.’
Designed for a different century
Paul Marsh, Law Society president from 2008-9 and current Solicitors’ Regulation Authority board member, observes: ‘Promoting change in an organisation like the Law Society is difficult and requires a certain deftness of touch – particularly when it comes to asking late-middle-aged men to change the way they do something.‘ While Marsh says that Dixon was ‘efficient’, he reckons she lacked that necessary lightness of touch.
Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group is not a solicitor, but sits on the Society’s access to justice committee. He detects ‘deep-seated regret’ about the manner of Dixon’s resignation. ‘She had only just got her feet under the table, was making her mark and now she’s gone. It seems she forced a vote on the governance structure to make it a vote of confidence in herself,’ he says.
Hynes reckons that the leak enquiry is ‘ridiculous’ given the number of people to whom the letter was sent and the likelihood of it getting out.
Whilst one anonymous Chancery Lane observer has ‘great sympathy’ for the resignation, he notes that its governance problems have been ‘rumbling on for decades’. ‘If you lose your chief executive without notice or warning, then that’s a good sign that something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ remarks Christopher Digby-Bell, one of the council members for the City of London.
The anonymous observer lists its biggest problems – governance, being taken seriously by government, its battles with the SRA and its lack of relevance to most solicitors. ‘Its role is difficult at every level and the battles it’s got are big.’
James Parry, best known for forcing a successful vote of no confidence in 2013 in the then chief executive, Des Hudson, and president Fluck, over its negotiations with government on criminal legal aid, is now chairman of the Society’s criminal law committee. He says the Society was ‘designed for a different century’ – it lacks transparency and has a ‘very slow chain of command’.
‘The landscape has changed a lot since we split between regulation and representation,‘ comments Andrew Holroyd, president from 2007-8; but, he notes, the Society’s structure has not adapted.
Its affairs, says Digby-Bell, are seen as an irrelevance to most, so it will ‘be left alone to sort things out or to self destruct’. Assuming is picks the former, a good place to start, he suggests, would be to open up the debate on the future governance structure by holding it in public – making it more likely to carry its members with it.
All agree that Chancery Lane needs to drastically cut the size of the council. But even slimmed down, the Society faces an uncertain future.
While the government’s legal regulation review has been overshadowed by the Brexit bombshell, the prospect of a clean break between the Law Society and SRA looms on the horizon and will remove the majority of Chancery Lane’s revenue stream. It will then face the not inconsiderable challenge of persuading enough members to cough up voluntarily for its representative services.
This could be tricky, as the betting is that most won’t fancy it. The majority of criminal and family solicitors, suggests Parry, will not be interested in paying for membership, while those in the City of London are well-represented by the City of London Law Society.
But before the Society is entirely engulfed by the storm-clouds, Digby-Bell points to ‘a silver lining to this latest hiatus’.
He reckons: ‘We have been handed the opportunity to get ahead of the game and to fashion an organisation that will be ready and waiting to take the profession forward once the SRA has taken 100% control of regulation and we are seeking members willing to pay £300 a year for our representative services.’
But, he says: ‘This is not a nip here or a tuck there. It means a root and branch shift from a professional body to a commercial services business.‘
Parry advises the Society to look to the representative and support services that it can offer members, to promote their interests and provide education, training and CPD at a price they can afford. But, he adds: ‘This cannot be done on the basis that everything happens in London, because the majority of us aren’t in London.‘
Much says Marsh, will come down to its financing. He moots a statutory income stream ‘if only to fund the important work law reform work that it does’ but that, he argues, will not be enough for it to survive.
And a lot, Marsh suggests, depends on ‘buy-in’ from the big City firms, who would be unwise to turn their backs. The Law Society brand, he says, remains respected internationally and the Society does valuable work promoting English legal services abroad.
There is disagreement on whether the Law Society could act as an effective trade union, given the competing interests of its members. But Hynes is clear that there is a ‘real need for a strong independent voice in the profession to represent it and stand up for the importance of the rule of law and access to justice’.
For Holroyd, this role is particularly important. ‘The profession needs a voice, not just for its lawyers, but for the clients they serve,‘ he says. For instance, he argues the SRA is planning changes that the Society would never have considered when it was in charge of regulation, such as reducing the amount of insurance that solicitors need and changing the definition of client money.
‘The SRA has a vision of the public interest which is about competition and not actually about public interest, so the Law Society has an important role to play in protecting the public against the regulator,’ says Holroyd.
Time for a little benign dictatorship
Over his career, Marsh has seen nine chief executives come and go, and says it is the ‘most dispensable job’ because ‘there will always be a queue of people wanting it.’
Many within Chancery Lane recognise the need for the change, but planning that journey is, as recent events have demonstrated, proving challenging.
The current president Robert Bourns is regarded as a moderniser, and deputy vice president, Christina Blacklaws, as a successful change-manager, but Dixon’s replacement will be a crucial piece in the jigsaw too.
Parry says they have two choices – an in-house person who understands the law and lawyers, or a non-lawyer with a wider, public and ‘real-world’ perspective. ‘Whoever it is, they will have an uphill struggle,’ he adds.
What is required to ‘get out of this hole, says Digby-Bell, is strong leadership. ‘We take enormous care to elect the president, but then we deny him the power to actually lead us,‘ he says. ‘It’s time to recognise that you can only try to herd cats for so long. Sometimes a bit of benign dictatorship is the only way.‘
LegalVoice contacted the Law Society for comment but it declined. In an interview with The Times, Robert Bourns said he would use his remaining months as president to push for streamlined and more efficient governance. He cautioned against changing the Society’s funding model. ‘I’m fed up with people beating up the Law Society and failing to recognise all the work it does in the public interest and not in the vested self-interest of the profession,’ he said.
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