Catherine Dixon's resignation may be the wake-up call that shakes Chancery Lane out of its torpor, writes Jean-Yves Gilg
January may or may not be 'divorce month' but the first week of the new year certainly brought an almighty breakup in legal circles.
On 3 January, the Law Society's chief executive, Catherine Dixon, in post for just two years, presented her resignation in a damning letter to council members.
Dixon's main reason for leaving is the lack of progress on agreeing essential changes to the society's governance structure. Her main proposal was the creation of a smaller council and main board to replace the current 100-strong council as the strategic decision driver. This, she said, was a prerequisite to making the Law Society a more nimble organisation in tune with a modern and diverse profession.
The move required the agreement of council members, who would lose most of their powers as a result. When council was asked to consider the principle of the proposal in July, observers were quick to comment that this would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas. It isn't. If you must have a turkey metaphor, this is more about a few turkeys deciding whether they want to come together and survive or all end up as twizzlers. What is at stake is the opportunity for the society to reconnect with an increasingly disenfranchised base and its ability to represent the interests of its members more effectively.
Council members are taking their time over this, asking for a review of council seats first, which has now prompted Dixon to throw in the towel. This is perhaps an extreme response and maybe there are other reasons behind Dixon's decision, but her letter underscores some very real challenges for the Law Society.
If the Legal Services Act runs its course, it may only be a matter of years before the Solicitors Regulation Authority is hived off the Law Society, leaving Chancery Lane to fend for itself as a representative organisation having to raise its own income. Change is inevitable if the society is to meet this challenge.
Recent attempts at modernisation merely tinkered at the edges or were dogged by miscalculation. The centralisation drive initiated by Dixon's immediate predecessor, Des Hudson, seemed a sensible enough idea on paper. It was meant to give Chancery Lane greater control over the solicitor brand.
In practice, this meant, for instance, that interest groups who sought funding from the Law Society would have to join the ranks as one of the new divisions. It only had moderate success, managing only to combine two independent organisations at the junior end of the profession. Most other groups resisted despite the consequences in funding terms.
In the Conveyancing Quality Scheme, the society thought it could restore its credentials as the defender of high-street firms. It ended up making life easier for lenders without safeguarding solicitors' interests. Then came the ill-fated Veyo project, which cost the profession £7m and has left deep credibility scars among the membership.
And there is the Socrates case, in which a training provider is claiming that the society broke competition rules by requiring solicitors seeking on-going accreditation to undertake Chancery Lane-provided training. The Law Society could just get away with this, but for disenchanted members, the impression they're left with is of an organisation more concerned about generating income than about providing them with support and promoting their interests.
Dixon's resignation will come as a disappointment to many who saw her as the face of change. Some will hope that it will be the wake-up call that finally shakes Chancery Lane out of its torpor. There is support for her approach, especially among younger constituents and in the regions, but unless enough members are prepared to pick up her torch and push on with reform, Dixon's departure will otherwise just be a minor glitch for an organisation on the road to doomed irrelevance.
On that note, happy new year, everybody.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief of Solicitors Journal