The Law Society’s loss of its chief executive highlights the identity crisis at the heart of Chancery Lane
After only two years in the job, the chief executive of the Law Society (LS), Catherine Dixon, has resigned over the lack of progress in reforming the governance structures of the organisation, which represents 130,000 practising solicitors. Changes to its governing council and committees have been in the air for at least 20 years, but the ongoing tussle over the regulation of solicitors has raised the political heat around the issue.
The late 1990s were years of turmoil at the LS, which prompted debate about its purpose and the effectiveness of its governance. In 1998, the management consultant Lord Dennis Stevenson was appointed to draft a report, which concluded that the organisation’s very structure ‘prevents effective decision-making’. The implication to be drawn from Dixon’s departure is that she believes little has changed; her letter of resignation laments the failure of the organisation’s governance arrangements to work ‘in a responsive and agile way’.
Legal Action believes that there is a consensus around the need to change within the LS. This has been forced on it by the loss of the regulatory function, which is now carried out at arm’s length by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) under overarching regulator the Legal Services Board (LSB). There is a turf war for control of responsibilities being played out between the regulators and the LS.
There is little dispute about the need for independence around the complaints process for solicitors’ clients, but the LS wants to retain control of entry to the profession and standards. In contrast, the LSB wants an independent SRA to control entry to the profession, complaints processes and professional standards, very much along the lines of how the medical profession is organised.
The British Medical Association’s (BMA) governance arrangements are similar to what Dixon appears to have had in mind, but was ultimately thwarted over by the LS council. At the BMA, the day-to-day running of the organisation is undertaken by a board of directors, which includes the chief executive. It works with an executive team of paid professionals to implement policy and a strategy decided by its representative body of practitioners. In her resignation letter, Dixon said she believed that the CEO should be party to decisions as a member of the board and not just ‘attending and reporting’ to it.
The Law Society has never been in the business of representing individual employees; instead, it represents the profession as a whole.
Around two-thirds of medical practitioners choose to join the BMA, which has been a registered trade union since 1971. Currently, solicitors are automatically enrolled as members of the LS. The fees for their practising certificates go to fund both the regulators and the LS. The fear in the LS is that if the government comes down on the LSB’s side in the argument over future regulation, it will be cut off from this income.
As a raison d’être, though, acting as a trade union for solicitors presents difficulties for the LS. The BMA has no responsibilities around access to the profession; this is controlled by the General Medical Council (GMC). Unlike the BMA, which has the advantage of dealing with the same employer, the NHS, for the overwhelming majority of its members, there are currently around 11,000 law firms in England and Wales. Most significantly, the LS has never been in the business of representing individual employees; instead, it represents the profession as a whole.
Legal Action believes the LS is an important bulwark to defend the professional independence of solicitors – something that can be threatened whether a solicitor works in a law firm or not-for-profit, or as an in-house legal adviser. This is an important part of its commitment to the rule of law, which is central to its mission, along with the defence of access to justice and human rights. The LS views this as its public duty, the problem is that the regulators do not believe the public interest is the organisation’s main concern.
For the LS to survive, it needs to reconcile the democratic representative structures for the profession with those needed for a regulatory body. Over the past 20 years, the LS council has expanded to include representation from every branch of the profession and this is supplemented by the growth of myriad specialist committees that provide expert policy advice on just about every aspect of the legal system. Contrast this with the GMC: this is a statutory body controlled ultimately by a board made up of six lay members and six medics.
In order to have a role in controlling access to the profession and standards, the LS will have to convince this or any future government intent on amending the regulatory framework that it can look after the public interest while still remaining a representative body for the solicitors’ profession. A measure of independent representation on any executive board, with clearly defined responsibilities, would go a long way to achieving this. The trouble is, Dixon’s resignation has, in all likelihood, made any such change harder to achieve.