I spent some days last week in Dresden at the annual conference of the Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA), which - with the International Bar Association (IBA) - is one of the two organisations serving lawyers worldwide. What I want to know is: why must there be two?
First, Dresden. I had not been there since just after the wall fell, when it still retained the dreary traces of communist influence, particularly in architecture. All that has disappeared, and the centre is now a remarkably beautiful collection of fine buildings, able to compete with the top attractions in Europe. The rebuilt Frauenkirche, which was destroyed in the Allied firebombing of February 1945, has an interior as inspiring as its history.
The UIA put on an original show at the conference’s opening ceremony. An unaccompanied choir of young people sang while there was a live slide show of Dresden pictures together with made-for-the-moment finger painting, often superimposed.
I have now attended in quick succession the annual conferences of the two international legal organisations (the IBA in Dublin and the UIA in Dresden). Only a lunatic or someone who works for a bar organisation would put themselves through such punishment. For instance, there was a session on alternative business structures at both, with some of the same speakers (my president, and Christina Blacklaws of Co-operative Legal Services). I have not undertaken a session-for-session comparison, but there were other overlaps – the legal aspects of social networking, international criminal justice, the impact of the economic crisis on lawyers…
A completely different crowd attends each conference. The IBA, as is well known - and forgive a bit of caricature in my description of both organisations - attracts the big law firms, the anglo-saxons, English speakers and those who want to do business with these groups. The UIA, on the other hand, attracts mainly Latin language speakers – French principally, but also Italian and Spanish – and people from small firms, as well as people who want to do business with them. (Of course, the distinctions are not strict, and Latin language speakers attend the IBA and have led the organisation, and vice versa with anglo-saxons and the UIA.)
Each loses from the separation. Language and culture influence meaning, and that could not be clearer in the law. For instance, differences manifest themselves in basic legal concepts, such as between the common law idea of legal professional privilege and the continental notion of professional secrecy (the first essentially belongs to the client and the second to the lawyer), and continue into ideas of legal practice, such as with the structures and habits of big law firms. It is not helpful, therefore, if people are herded - or, rather, herd themselves - into comfort zones that do not expose them to the other point of view.
Essentially, it comes down to language. Some people speak nothing other than their own, which determines to which organisation they will belong. That is because the IBA uses English only, whereas the UIA offers interpretation for its major sessions into English, French and Spanish (and occasionally in Dresden into German and Arabic as well). There are pros and cons to each approach. The advantages and disadvantages of a single language are obvious. But translation and interpretation - while clearly more inclusive than a single language - are not panaceas, either: they are expensive, and, unless performed by experts, interpreted speech can turn into unlistenable-to porridge, with important nuances omitted.
My view is that these obstacles can and should be overcome. All cultures should feel themselves at home within a single body. Careful consideration will have to be given to the language issue, of course. This will not only save me from attending two similar events each autumn, but - much more importantly - the profession itself will benefit from enforced cohabitation.
Speak to each other! Let big law firm speak to solo practitioner, UK and USA to Peru and Senegal, anglophone to francophone. I know there are tensions and prides involved, and long histories. But none of this justifies duplication and separation.
I vote, therefore, for an amalgamation, a UIBA, a Union of International Bar Associations. (I stress that this is a personal view, and not that of the organisation for which I work.) Anyone out there ready to open the negotiations?
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