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One size does not fit all

Law Society HB Editorial 146x219Maria Memoli explains the background to the fight to retain the two seats on the Law Society Council for local government and to ensure candidates were proposed by way of nomination.

This is my account of how and why I fought to retain the two seats on Law Society Council and why they should be proposed by way of nomination, rather than an election process.

I understand the Law Society’s point of view that they want all seats to be on the council in the same fashion. However, this does not take into account the individual needs of the various groups within the legal profession. One size does not fit all.

Most of the groups that were recognised by the Law Society with whom they had agreements, have decided not to fall within the new groups or divisions within the Law Society. The Law Society had given due notice to cease giving grant funding and terminate the Recognised Group Agreement with effect at the end of February 2013. The intention was that these groups would form part of the new regime at the Law Society.

My group, Solicitors in Local Government (now merged with ACSeS and known as Lawyers in Local Government), has decided not to be part of the new In-House Division of the Law Society, which division will be shared with Commerce and Industry and others. So too has the Commerce and Industry Group decided not to be under the umbrella of the Law Society’s In-House Division.

These two groups together make up 30% of the legal profession. A significant proportion – which cannot be ignored by the Law Society. However both wish to work with the Law Society. Let’s not forget our training arm LGG (of which I was chairman for more than seven years) the main training provider for Local Government legal professionals, and a lucrative business, which the Law Society refer to as their “competitor”.

In reality the training existed well before the new in-house arrangements came into existence at the Law Society, and to my knowledge more than 30 years ago. So why is LGG a competitor all of a sudden? So is the Law Society now in competition with LGG? Why cannot both organisations work collaboratively together? There is no need for a “them” and “us” attitude, which only serves to be divisive. There are many more training providers who are most definitely competitors of the Law Society. So please stop picking on us. Any profits made go back to the training pot for our members. Nothing wrong with that.

When I was elected onto the prestigious Management Board, little did I know that I would be adopting the very sentiments I used in my election statement, that I would “talk the talk “and “walk the talk”. This was a very difficult time for me, but I knew I had to be true to myself and to my constituents: solicitors/lawyers in local government.

The two local government seats on the Law Society Council are very precious. It is not the first time; we have had a fight on our hands to retain them at all costs. I said both Commerce & Industry and Local Government make up 30% of the profession but that is according to the Law Society’s records. How many local authorities actually employ paralegals, barristers, legal executives? All of whom are not on the radar of the Law Society. There are many more than those who hold practising certificates and are registered with the SRA. I suspect the numbers would increase the majority to beyond 30%.

Solicitors/Lawyers in Local Government are distinct from our fellow solicitors. After all we are employed by organisations who are creatures of statute, all our powers emanate from primary and secondary legislation. How many other lawyers are restricted in this way? We are unable to act outside our statutory remit; otherwise we would be acting ultra vires and stand to be judicially reviewed for any actions or decisions taken. Our employers and indirectly we, as employees, are answerable to the taxpayer.

Our fellow lawyers in the private sector are answerable to their clients, and their managing boards. That is a very different environment. Now the SRA want separation of management and finance and for different officers to act as safeguards for the private sector. In local government, we already have to abide by the legislative requirements, financial and other regulations, not forgetting internal auditors and the District Auditor from the Audit Commission. All standard practice. It is significant that the majority of those holding Lexcel accreditation are solicitors who work in local government.

The Government is mandating local authorities to act as springboards to growth in the economy, devolving more powers down from central government to more local levels. What section of the profession compares to that of local government? Apart from the regulatory process, what does local government have in common with the Commerce and Industry group, or the voluntary sector (who incidentally obtain funding from local government)?

Local government is unique and should remain so. It is the biggest procurer of legal services – to lump us in with an in-house division does not do it justice. I do not mean to be disingenuous to the other groups here, but I am stating a fact.

That is why I agreed with the Council Membership Committee’s original recommendations back in January. That the status quo should prevail so far as local government was concerned.

I have to say I was rather surprised at seeing the draft recommendations purporting to be from the Council Membership Committee with the papers before the Management Board in March. To top this, my comments on the consultation were omitted. I was most unhappy at the Management Board meeting. The report before the Management Board was incorrect, and although the facts were corrected by the Council Membership Committee’s meeting, which had taken place the previous day before the Management Board, it was still confusing. Thereafter the Management Board was asked to vote against the recommendations by the Council Membership Committee. This is where my resolve came into play. I asked for my votes against to be recorded. Anger was stirring amongst the groups.

Within two days, the Management Board were presented with some compromises by way of email. I did not agree to the matters being handled in this way, despite the Law Society pointing to their authority for doing so. Time was of the essence, since the Law Society Council meeting was scheduled for 27 March. More importantly the Law Society timetable for election processes had to be issued by the end of March. Hence the rush. From the Law Society’s point of view, all uniform processes had to be signed off and approved by the council, in time for despatch of the election papers.

However, one should never underestimate the political will – as we in local government only know too well. I have to say, that having galvanised support from individuals and the other groups, with the true recommendations of the Council Membership Committee, I am happy to report that the Council Membership Committee’s recommendations won the day at the Law Society Council on 27 March. True democracy at work!....well with a bit of “political” assistance.

Why nomination and not election? Simple. It is the executive of the organisation that should decide whom they wish to nominate as their representatives on the Law Society. I say this because it is important to choose someone who will truly represent all lawyers in local government selflessly, who can command the respect of this section of the profession and understand all aspects of the issues facing local government, who can stand up and be counted for.

If there was an all-out election to the local government sector, how will the Law Society know whether the candidates are actually “employed” by local government? Not all solicitors in Local Government have “opted in” to the Law Society’s Database, and not all solicitors hold practising certificates if they work as paralegals. Therefore the Law Society will be disenfranchising certain members of the profession. Or indeed, some maverick who will want to be elected for their own personal gain, or who does not engage with the executive and hence know the aims and objectives of Lawyers in Local Government. The Council Membership Committee agreed the status quo, as did the Law Society Council. Nominations by the executive, has worked well in the past – so I say, “why try to fix something that ain’t broke”?

Maria Memoli is a Law Society Council Member and Head of Legal and Estates and Monitoring Officer at Aylesbury Vale District Council.