Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Law Society plays the spin game to survive as Chief Executive creates more 'puppet posts' to stifle reforms

People used to sipping from the golden trough will do anything to survive these days, particularly when its on someone else's money.

Douglas Mill proves just that as the Law Society's 10,000 strong membership is taken on another financial ride, creating what some in the profession dub "puppet posts" to further his own distinctly personal policies of taking the Law Society far out of reach of its membership.

Perish the thought that one solicitor one vote - or even one client one vote might ever be allowed in Mr Mill's rather silly looking personal quango ...

The Scotsman reports :

'We can emerge as a different organisation'


IF THE turn of a new year is a time for looking ahead to new challenges, then Neil Stevenson has more change than most to grapple with.

In his new post as the Law Society of Scotland's head of strategic change, he will be trying to stay on top of all the big issues currently facing the profession – revamping education, standards and, of course, alternative business structures.

If that wasn't enough to keep his in-tray piled high with lever arch files filled with background reading, the society is also carrying out a governance review that could lead to significant changes in its internal structure.

This newly created post represents a promotion for Stevenson, who was previously the society's deputy director of education and training.

But when strategic management is usually the domain of a chief executive, why did the society need him to step up?

"You must have picked up on the level of change facing the society at the moment and the profession," Stevenson says. "There is a great list of projects I could rattle off – the highest profile ones are education, alternative business structures and standards in the profession.

"It was just felt that the society had traditionally had real areas of expertise but had not had many people working across all the departments, and so that's really what the role is about. It's trying to make sure all these projects are co-ordinated and that they stay on track within some overall framework."

In recent years, planning must have seemed something of a luxury for the society, which has found itself on the back foot over issues like complaints handling, the Legal Profession and Legal Bill and, thanks to the Which? super-complaint, alternative business structures. Stevenson acknowledges that the society has often had to be reactive and now needs to take a more proactive approach.

"So often when issues that the society is tackling get covered in the press and suddenly become very visible to practising members of the profession, it's because there's been some external driver," he says.

"But actually most of these areas are being worked on, and what these external drivers have done is make the work more noticeable, more visible and more under scrutiny. But it is not necessarily been why the society started off on a project."

While Stevenson will report direct to chief executive Douglas Mill and his deputy, Henry Robson, he stresses that he will be working closely with other senior staff members including his old boss, director of education and training Liz Campbell, director of professional practice, Bruce Ritchie, director of law reform, Michael Clancy, and director of regulation, Philip Yelland.

"It is really about me working with other senior colleagues," he says. "That is why I am so excited about getting the job, because instead of just working with Liz, which was fantastic, now I am getting to work with all my senior colleagues and get involved in all the big projects that are going on. They are still leading them – I am trying to make sure everything is co-ordinating together."

Stevenson, who studied law at Edinburgh University and previously worked for NHS Education for Scotland, has considerable experience in running major projects for the society, such as the research into women and the profession and the recently published profile of the profession. He has also played a significant role in the ongoing consultation into education and training.

While education underpins many issues facing the profession, particularly regarding standards, he says he has much to learn about the bigger picture, and what practising solicitors think.

"There is a certain amount of getting up to speed – I am regularly being passed lever arch files of reading at the moment," he laughs. "I am also trying to make sure I am aware of the profession's views on new areas. I spoke to them a lot over education issues, but I want to make sure I am aware of what people who are practising think, as well as where we are trying to take policy."

With so many pressing changes facing the society and the profession, it will be difficult for Stevenson to have a priority. However, the short-term agenda is likely to be dominated by the society's consultation on alternative business structures, which is due to end on 31 January.

"We are looking at how we analyse the results of that, and what might happen next," he says, adding that this is far from straightforward. "Alternative business structures are something that members of the public will have a view on and will want to have their say on, but they are also in some ways quite difficult to understand.

"There will be complex regulation and overlaps with Companies House and the Financial Services Authority and so on, whereas standards of service that solicitors should be delivering, almost everyone you spoke to would have a view on that."

On standards, Stevenson plans to set up focus groups in the spring to gauge what consumers expect from solicitors, before moving to a full public consultation later in the year.

Of less direct interest to the public – and possibly even many in the profession – will be ongoing work to look at the governance of the society itself. Stevenson believes that structural change could be fundamental to ensuring the society "delivers what people want", but he cautions that it won't necessarily mean the society can respond more swiftly in the future.

"Some of these areas are incredibly complicated and they do take time – what we want to avoid is having a quick reaction just to prove we can move quickly," he says. "We want to make sure that where it's about areas such as public protection, we really are looking into what all the implications are before just making a quick response because one group wants it.

"Having worked in the public sector before coming here, I think we can be faster than some of the areas I have worked in previously. Equally I know there are probably examples of where we have been a bit slower.

"One of things we are trying to do is make sure we get it right and things like involving the public do take time to do properly. In some ways it is very easy to rush out a quick document, give people a few weeks to reply and say that's consultation."

Ultimately, amid the myriad challenges facing the society, Stevenson sees opportunity: "If you look at alternative business structures, standards, education, the fact we are reviewing internal structures – there's actually a huge package of change in place.

"Over the next couple of years, we have an opportunity to emerge as a very different type of organisation. For me, that is what is should be all about."

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