Solicitors’ representation body in desperate bid to steady ship as search to replace chief executive drowns in jargon and rivalries
If only the role and purpose of the Law Society of England and Wales were to churn out reams of nonsensical, cod-psychological gibberish — then solicitors wouldn’t feel so hard done by every time they coughed up their practising certificate fees.
Because that is exactly what Chancery Lane mandarins do so very well — with the latest example being an incomprehensible internal staff document released earlier this week redefining the organisation’s “values”.
This is by no means the first time the society’s managers have indulged in a spot of navel gazing that results in a revolutionary outcome involving the word “values”. Chancery Lane-watchers blessed with good memories will painfully recall a “living the values” programme of several years ago, which also probably incorporated the words “respect” and “collaboration”.
The most recently published core values involve some motherhood and apple pie standards, such as, “putting our members first” and “always giving our members the best service possible”. Meanwhile, the “respect” category includes some difficult concepts such as, “treating everyone with courtesy” and “acting in a professional way at all times”.
As with just about every time the Chancery Lane hierarchy breathes, the latest diktat is replete with irony. It comes only weeks after The Times newspaper reported that a recent Chancery Lane staff survey discovered bullying at the society was rife.
The survey found that 16% of staff said they had been bullied during the previous year, while 10% said they had suffered discrimination. An online comment to The Times article from a reader purporting to have knowledge of the society’s workings raised an interesting thesis — its neo-classical headquarters building is partially to blame.
“The very offices of the Law Society encourages it [bullying and discrimination],” wrote the reader, describing Chancery Lane as:
“an antiquated warren of secreted spaces, hidden rooms and isolated teams where silos are tolerated and poor behaviours go unnoticed, untackled and ignored. The working environment itself works against engendering a positive culture of openness.”
All of this comes at a crunch time for the body that represents the nearly 150,000 solicitors on the roll in England and Wales. After six years, controversial chief executive Des Hudson is standing down, and head-hunters have been handed a large cheque to find a replacement.
Hudson vehemently denies that his departure is in any way linked to a vote of no-confidence in his leadership, which was passed at an extraordinary general meeting of the society at the end of last year. That humiliating vote was triggered by criminal law solicitors fuming at what they see as Hudson’s woefully ineffectual attempts at fighting government cuts to legal aid.
Regardless of why he is going, Hudson’s departure creates a vacuum — and with its usual aplomb, the Law Society has tripped over its own shoelaces as it tries to fill the gap. Despite having several months’ notice of Hudson’s impending departure, an advertisement for the chief executive role was published only about a fortnight ago.
Sources suggest that usual rivalries on the society’s 100-plus ruling council meant agreement could not be reached on the job description. Whereas most solicitors would be happy with something along the lines of “Must be able to walk and talk roughly at the same time and not be disposed towards pissing away millions of pounds of our cash each year,” the esteemed council members spent months wrangling over a more complicated spec.
Who will replace Hudson, and does anyone — especially younger lawyers in the City — care? If they don’t, arguably they should.
Owing to a quirk in the Legal Services Act 2007 — which formally separated the society from the Solicitors Regulation Authority — Chancery Lane still bags nearly 30% of the practising certificate fee to finance its activities, such as producing “values” documents.
For the time being at least, solicitors don’t have a choice — the money goes to the society regardless of whether they find value in its values.
The society’s most recent annual report, released in the last few days, has also stoked controversy. On its face, it shows a £7.2 million surplus for last year, compared to a stonking £22.7 million black hole on £120 million of revenue for 2012.
But Chancery Lane bean counters have decided to report on only the first 10 months of 2013, citing mysterious accounting date changes. Whether the society stays in the black when its financial chiefs return to the convention of counting all 12 months in a year is anyone’s guess.
So back to the issue of who should step into Hudson’s size 10s. On the basis that elements of the latest values manifesto owe a debt to the “Cults Made Easy” handbook — with mantras such as “sharing knowledge, information and expertise to get the best possible outcomes” featuring prominently — perhaps the head-hunters could resurrect Sun Myung Moon or L Ron Hubbard.
After all, both the Moonies and the Scientologists know a thing or two about jargon. But then the job might not be worth either having their blissful after-life disturbed. While Hudson’s remuneration package soared last year by nearly 20% to eclipse the £400k mark, the society has slashed the salary for the job to £250k at most.