Some may say that today was the day we ate our own tail. They’ll say the solicitors profession should be united. That we should stand together against a government hell bent on undermining justice. Well, yes and no for me. The vote of no confidence in the Law Society’s strategy to oppose criminal legal aid reforms really has to be looked at in a broader context. We within the profession, and those few who have stuck it out and continued practising in both criminal and civil Legal Aid areas until 2013 in particular, have watched the Law Society losing the war over the past 15 years or so. It wins battles but it has steadily lost the war. I put together a series of links back in April which illustrate this. Added to that is ill will over personal injury reforms and alternative business structures.
228 solicitors voted for a motion of no confidence today. I support their cause, even if I’m not entirely convinced the vote was the best way forward and I should mention again that the Law Society Council is under no obligation to do anything as a result of the vote. Indeed, shortly before it a Law Society spokesman said so, pointing out that even a full postal vote of all Law Society members would be non-binding. The Council decides what happens next, despite the outcome of the vote. The Society’s initial statement responding to the vote was notable for it’s blandness. It’s been followed by a further release “reaffirm[ing] its vow to continue opposing cuts”.
The Law Society represents us (clients have the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, of course) so we expect the Law Society to actually do so, within reason (from time to time I see solicitors suggesting things in the Gazette which would undermine the profession’s ethical obligations to justice and clients). Increasingly, it seems we need it to be more like a trade union. From my perspective there are two main failings in how the Law Society has gone about it over the years.
The first is that it’s failed to tackle the PR problems. This breaks down in two ways: the acceptance of the fact that public opinion determines public policy and how you deliver the message. Lawyers aren’t really that great at this stuff. Some of us prefer to tinker in our ivory towers, desperately clinging to legal practice and trying to avoid being businesses. We tut over advertising campaigns like we’re still in the 19th century. We think it’s enough to be right, without needing to sell the argument that makes us right. Maybe there’s even a hint of snobbery in not wanting to need public support. The Law Society puts its head above the parapet. Of course it does. But it doesn’t do it often enough or effectively enough in the face of the media and even politicians calling us greedy self-serving fat cats. Senior Law Society Council members are capable of sincere and affecting rhetoric. When she was president, Linda Lee brought tears to my eyes at a function (I wasn’t even drinking) and got a standing ovation. Believe me, she had it in her to affect non-lawyers but the Law Society seems to struggle with the concept that it has to take the fight to the public at all.
The second question is whether direct action is the right thing. This has been on the cards for years now and, despite the immediate impact on justice if criminal lawyers go on strike, I’m all for it (just as long as the PR surrounding it is handled properly). It’s the only option left. Shut justice down to prove the point.
Time after time the Law Society has been the Judas goat leading Legal Aid practitioners. The vote of no confidence didn’t come out of the blue. Legal Aid practitioners have trusted the Law Society and the nearer they’re led to the abattoir, the less faith they have. They’ve asked for better PR in the past. They’ve called for strike action in the past. The past 15 years have demonstrated that Legal Aid practitioners shouldn’t have confidence in the Law Society. But that’s also why I don’t agree that heads should necessarily roll. This isn’t about the people on the Council today. It’s about long term strategy. The Law Society hasn’t been listening to its members. If it’s members have to kick it somewhere tender to get its attention, so be it. That doesn’t signal that we’re a divided profession on the principle. It shows that some people in the profession have more of a stomach for a fight than the Law Society. What will be far more detrimental is if the Society ends up speaking against strike action when it comes. I don’t expect resignations. I don’t even want them but I do hope the embarrassment of a vote of no confidence being passed will make the Council listen to the desperation of the members who attended and voted and look at its strategy again.