What Next for the Law Society?

These are troubled times for the Law Society. Faced with a hostile Government that doesn’t listen, a tired and mutinous membership that has lost respect, botched software projects, a vote of no confidence that was brushed aside, a critical CMA report, the SRA being an unruly assertive upstart demanding formal independence, and the LSB planning to abolish solicitors entirely, the Chief Executive resigns. And not just any resignation: Catherine Dixon condemned the Council for its unwillingness to change, describing her employer as ‘moribund, old fashioned and bureaucratic’.


In her New Year letter, she added that the organisation’s inertia would enable hostile parties to outsmart it, and that a CEO should lead change, not be forced to merely respond to the status quo.


“I cannot in good faith continue to be CEO of an organisation which is seemingly not mindful of [wasting time and resources through the present structure] and not prepared to change.”


This damning criticism will make it much harder to recruit a successor – who would want to walk into a bear pit?


This expensive jamboree is said to cost in excess of £2m per year.


After a year of logjam, I can’t help but sympathise with Mrs Dixon in her frustration at the unwieldy structures that she had to deal with. The catalyst was Council’s refusal to shorten members’ terms pending a review of Council seats. This is Nero fiddling while Rome is burning.


But, astonishingly, it’s nothing new. Writing in the Gazette 27 November 2008, Tim O’Sullivan, then Chair of the Council membership committee (which oversees Council’s composition to ensure it remains representative) wrote:


Last year, Council debated the merits of a smaller body and initiated the review. The vote for no change is an opportunity lost. The profession may share the committee’s frustration and wonder whether Council remains the appropriate body to take decisions on its size and composition, given its members’ inherent conflict of interest.”


So we need to add at least another year to the timeline. All this talking shop has therefore been going on for over ten years. Council has listened to no-one, and learned nothing, for ten years. Isn’t that disgraceful?


Imagine a solicitors’ practice with a ‘moribund, old fashioned and bureaucratic’ management team that refused to embrace change. It would go out of business, outpaced by more fleet-of-foot rivals. And quite rightly so. Lexcel requires law firms to have a focused strategic plan. As Lexcel consultants we write strategic plans and business plans for law firms. The SRA has a web page all about innovation. And yet its parent body won’t innovate, rather it runs away making excuses, characterised by dither, delay and self-interest. Modern law firms have management boards with an empowered executive, as it’s impossible to get everyone to agree to everything. The Law Society must do the same.


The Law Society does a great deal of good work, with many unsung heroes, but Council’s vision of protecting and speaking in the public interest is arcane, patronising, and out-dated. There are other, more effective organisations that do this. And the overall message, and the sterling work of those on committees, is lost.


It’s time to draw a deep breath. The President, Robert Bourns, will have to work quickly and decisively to force change. Ten years of talks have got the Law Society nowhere. It’s time to impose order. It desperately needs the change that Catherine Dixon so badly wanted. Self-interest has got to stop. And if it stopped being a talking shop and wasting its members’ money, with a clear focus on representing and protecting its members’ interests, maybe its members (me included) – and others – would take it more seriously.


Ed Austin



January 2017