I introduced a debate at the 6 February Law Society Council meeting on how the council can better represent the profession. The Society encourages solicitors to take an active interest in equality and diversity, and yet our council does not reflect the diversity of the profession. I quoted statistics which show that: women constitute nearly half of the profession but fewer than one-third of the council; black and minority ethnic solicitors make up around 12% of the profession and 6% of the council; and younger solicitors are also under-represented, with those under the age of 35 accounting for around 35% of the profession and 5% of the council.
Against this background, I made clear my view that a Law Society whose primary role is to represent the profession needs a council which is more representative of the profession. This is not a plea for perfect percentage ‘representativeness’ but it is a plea for improving where we are. We recognise that MPs, the judiciary and the police need to reflect our diverse society; equally, a council which more closely resembles the profession it represents is more likely to ensure that the Law Society remains focused on the needs and aspirations of the whole profession.
Although the tasks that council undertakes have changed significantly since day-to-day regulation was delegated to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, it is still the apex of the governance structure of the Society. The officeholders, including the president, are the most visible outward-facing representatives of the Society, but it is council which agrees the annual presidential plan, changes to Law Society policy and rules, and the strategic direction of the Society’s work. Furthermore, council members populate the boards which deal with policy work on behalf of council. And our specialist committees, which provide so much expertise in their work for the profession, also have dedicated seats for council members.
So why do so few people stand for council? Solicitors interested in legal politics are probably a small part of the profession, so that cuts down the numbers, and work pressures and other priorities reduce the numbers even more. But I suspect that another barrier might be misperceptions about what being a council member entails and how you can get to be one. Did you know that formal council meetings only take place six days a year? Or that anyone can stand in a constituency where they live or work?
Many of those who are active in their local law society stand for council, but local law society membership or involvement is not a pre-condition to standing. For instance, I was first elected to council without having ever being a member of my local law society – although I am happily so now. And it is certainly not the case that years of experience in practice is necessary to be a useful council member. Solicitors who will still be working in the profession in 20 or 30 years, and who are ready and willing to seize the opportunities that new ways of thinking and working will bring to the profession, will have a great deal to offer.
In our debate we discussed raising the profile of council elections to attract a more diverse pool of candidates and more voters – perhaps through better advertising or even media campaigning. We also discussed adjusting the working methods of the council that may be discouraging people from taking part – for example, the frequency, length and times of meetings.
The debate has led to some fresh ideas that we will tell you about shortly, but there are elections coming up over the next couple of months that many of you will be eligible to stand in. I wanted to take this opportunity to alert you to them so you could start thinking about whether this would fit in with your future plans. If any of you want more information on council membership, or have any suggestions as to how we can make it as representative and relevant as possible, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff is president of the Law Society