Three questions about the International Bar Association
I am writing this from The Hague in the Netherlands, where I am attending a variety of International Bar Association (IBA) meetings, including one for Bar Leaders. It has led me to reflect on the structure and aims of the IBA, which are not often publicly discussed. I have as a result formulated three questions. You may think that the answers automatically follow from the emphasis given in the lead-up to each - but, no, they are intended to be open questions.
By way of background to the first, it was recently reported that an Honorary Life President of the IBA, George Seward, died earlier this year at the age of 101. Many members of the IBA will remember his regular attendance at conferences. You may wonder what this has to do with structure and aims, but he had a major impact on the way that the IBA is now formed. In 1968, he proposed for the first time that the IBA should form a section for individual lawyers, as opposed to just bars.
The bar members were initially reluctant, but in due course the Section on Business Law (now the Legal Practice Division) was created, with its first official meeting in 1970. As with other leaders, people interpret his legacy differently. Many say that he ensured the financial viability of the Association with the introduction of individual membership. Others - probably from the bar side - believe that his proposal diluted the identity and meaning of the organisation. The first question is this: is the word ‘bar’ in the IBA’s title appropriate, given that - although it has bars as members - it also has a wide range of individual members over which it has no regulatory control?
The second question concerns the balance between bar members and individual members. The introduction of individual membership not only saw to the financial viability of the IBA, but indeed led it to become what can only be called a very rich organisation. Inevitably, the contributors are entitled to a large say. The bars are minor contributors to the wealth, and have a correspondingly sized voice, even sometimes over issues which directly affect the bars. The IBA is trying to address this through its increasingly vocal Bar Issues Commission. The next question is this, then: in an organisation of lawyers which is called a bar association, should the voice of the professional bodies be dependent on their financial contribution or on their importance in the practising life of lawyers?
Third, volunteers play a vital role in the output of the IBA. I should know because I am one, having contributed many hours to its work on cross-border legal services and professional principles. All the while, the reserves of the IBA grow in the bank to the extent where it could continue running for a long time even if all financial support were to be cut off tomorrow. From its last big conference in Dubai, for instance, it made a very handsome profit. It is curious that the volunteers who undertake unpaid work for the IBA contribute to the IBA’s sizeable reserves by paying the not insubstantial registration fees for conferences, on which the IBA then holds the profits.
Of course, many organisations rely on volunteers, but they are usually hand-to-mouth bodies where income is low. The third question, therefore, is this: should the current structure continue, which is based on unpaid members doing the lion’s share of professional work in a wide array of committees - indeed the members pay for the privilege of doing the work through conference registration - when the IBA now has the resources to employ professional staff to undertake much more policy work (which would free up members to provide the more manageable role of advising and voting on the policies)?
We have a stake in the answers, because a body like the IBA may be viewed by important political players in the international arena as representing us all. Its identity, and the quality of the policies it promotes, depend on the correct answers being given.
I should end with the usual disclaimers. These are my own thoughts, not those of the organisation where I work (the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, or CCBE). There are two international lawyers’ organisations, the IBA and the UIA (Union Internationale des Avocats), and the CCBE has excellent relations with both, although it is a member of neither. The fact that I am writing about the IBA does not mean that I favour it - or disfavour it - over the UIA, but just that I happen to be in The Hague at an IBA meeting now. And both the IBA and UIA do excellent work in providing networks, holding conferences and producing policies for lawyers.
The IBA has endless reviews of its structure. One is just snaking its way to an end now. Is it time for yet another?
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs