What good is the International Bar Association to a criminal legal aid solicitor in Rotherham?

The International Bar Association (IBA) is meeting this week in Washington DC for its annual conference.

Partners (mainly from the large firms) will be taking taxis at six each evening to check out their rivals’ receptions, after a day spent networking in a hotel with other law firms, and maybe attending a session related to the substantive law committee of which they are a member.

Since many of the responses to Gazette pieces, written by me or others, are of the nature of ‘How does this affect a criminal legal aid solicitor in Rotherham on a wet Wednesday evening?’, I will try – at the end of this article – to give a response.

By most measures, the IBA is an extremely successful organisation. It has attracted world-class speakers to the meeting, such as Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. It has a much-admired Human Rights Institute. It draws thousands to its conferences for its networking opportunities, and involves many of them in substantive law work through its committee structure.

It has gigantic reserves in the bank, to the tune of many millions.

The IBA has various strands, and I am involved in its bar and regulatory policy side. The substantive work in its committees can be of global significance. I am a member of a committee dealing with international trade in legal services, and some years back it developed recommended terminology for how legal services should be classified in trade talks. This classification is now becoming the accepted standard.

IBA guidelines and principles play a similar role in many other areas of legal life.

And I learn things. I have attended only two meetings so far on the first day this year, and the conference proper has not yet begun. But did you know that in some countries there is VAT imposed on pro bono legal services? Indeed, there was an official question asked in the European Parliament about this subject back in 2010, by a Polish MEP (Poland being one of the countries concerned).

And did you know that the most downloaded document on the Linklaters website is a report they wrote a year ago ‘In defence of the rule of law’? It noted that there are growing inroads into the rule of law in the UK (retrospective legislation, excessive and unclear powers given to the authorities, too many laws, changes in the burden of proof) – and the then lord chancellor even asked for a meeting after reading it.

Not all in the IBA garden is rosy. Not enough attention is paid to the professional issues facing our profession. For instance, some of the leading bar organisations in the world – the American Bar Association, the Canadian Bar Association and our own dear Law Society – have all produced reports on the future of legal services, mainly arising out of the significant challenges posed by unregulated providers and the rapid growth of technological change.

There is no equivalent IBA report, nor is one in the pipeline. There is no IBA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services, although if the question is raised, everyone agrees that the topic is urgent.

One of the reasons is because the IBA suffers from a conflict of identity: it is a lawyers’ organisation which seems to want to be a human rights organisation. You will find plenty on its website about climate change, human trafficking and other modish subjects – but nothing about the future of legal services.

Enough! I aim this to be a panegyric for becoming a member of the IBA, and indeed there is no contradiction between the good and the bad. The IBA’s conflict of identity poses interesting questions which should challenge people to join.

And what about the criminal legal aid solicitor in Rotherham? We know that the IBA attracts lawyers in droves from the big and mid-sized firms, but where does our Rotherham colleague fit in? I don’t follow the necessary tracks, given my own skills and experience, but there is a Criminal Law Committee, and some further specialisations within criminal law are catered for.

You will learn interesting ways in which your area of law is practised elsewhere, and - maybe most important of all - build a valuable network, particularly if you need to find a lawyer for your client in another country, which is becoming a more common need with immigration and general globalisation.

However, there is the question of cost. The usual registration fee for IBA annual conferences will start around £2,000, and then you have to get to a place like Washington DC and stay in a hotel for at least £150 a night for several days – it is very expensive.

As always with the IBA, there are pluses and minuses. But if you can afford it, consider going next year.

Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs