Catherine Dixon, chief executive of The Law Society, has today resigned after two years in charge at Chancery Lane. She blamed lack of progress made by the organisation’s 100-strong Council in streamlining governance, adding that she 'cannot in good faith continue to be CEO of an organisation which is not prepared to change'.
Society president Robert Bourns said: ‘We are extremely grateful to Catherine for her tireless and effective work for the Law Society as chief executive. Her achievements in the last two years are numerous and include delivering a new strategy and three-year plan, building our influence and thought leadership and promoting member focus at the heart of our work.
‘I note Catherine’s comments on the pace of the governance review. It is important that we press on with changes in order to take the organisation and the profession forward. I aim to use the rest of my presidency to help drive the next stage of the review and propose further changes.
‘We will be announcing plans for the recruitment of a new CEO in due course and in the meantime will focus with Catherine on the substantial work in progress.’
In a letter to Council, Dixon praised the hard work and commitment of employees but added that the lack of progress made on governance reform 'makes this the right thing for me to do'.
She stressed her belief that the Society will not be perceived by its members and other key stakeholders to have changed and to be representative of solicitors and the diverse solicitor profession, without changing the way it is governed.
The Society began a review of its governance, initially headed by Dr Nicola Nicholls, a former private equity executive, a year ago. Nicholls' 28-page report, published last May, contained proposals which included a smaller elected council, cutting terms to six years to increase turnover and the establishment of a smaller main board to take most governance decisions.
In October the Society agreed to establish a main board whose first task would be to review the form and function of other boards and make recommendations to Council for further reforms.
At present Council comprises up to 100 seats for volunteer solicitors representing geographic and special interest groups. It meets in London seven times a year. These seats are open to election on a four-year cycle.
In her letter (see below), Dixon says the Society 'cannot operate in a responsive and agile way' under the present regime. The issue had been been brought to a head by Council's decision to vote against limiting terms and, 'critically', not to begin implementing a new main board until council seats have been reviewed, thus delaying the reform process further.
The Society faces significant potential challenges in the coming months, with the government under pressure to review the system of legal services regulation and attendant funding arrangements enshrined in the 2007 Legal Services Act. In September last year, umbrella regulator the Legal Services Board unveiled radical plans to create a single legal services regulator and potentially overhaul the title of solicitor. As part of that blueprint, all ties between representative bodies and regulators would be severed - a split for which the Solicitors Regulation Authority has long been lobbying hard.
In her letter, Dixon counts among her achievements persuading government that now is not the right time for separating the regulators from their representative bodies, while warning 'clearly this could change'.
She adds: 'If the external environment was not so hostile, the Law Society could take its time to review its governance and make any changes at its own pace. However, the organisation does not have this luxury. Others are intent on harming it and the profession it serves. We should not give them any ability to be critical of us - and yet we have, as our failure to change means that we don't have the right governance arrangements to enable us to effectively respond to this hostile environment, leaving us vulnerable at this critical time.'
Dixon took over as Society chief executive in January 2015, replacing Desmond Hudson. She was previously chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority, which she joined from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, where she was general counsel and company secretary.
Dixon was previously with BUPA, as head of legal and then commercial director of Bupa Care Services, where she took an Open University MBA, and in private practice at Eversheds.
An extract of Dixon's letter to Council explaining the reasons for her departure follows.
I have decided to leave the Law Society. It has been a great honour to be the Law Society's Chief Executive and I do believe that over the course of the last two years we have moved the organisation on and that it is in much better shape than it was when I took over.
It is my firm belief that the Law Society will not be perceived by its members and other key stakeholders to have changed and to be representative of solicitors and the diverse solicitor profession, without changing the way it is governed.
The Law Society's governance is costly, (over £2 million per annum not taking into account my time or my executive's and staff time in reporting), bureaucratic and does not reflect how successful modern organisations, including membership organisations, operate.
The Law Society, in my view cannot, because of its current governance arrangements, operate in a responsive and agile way. It is impossible, as an effective Chief Executive Officer, to navigate the complex and often overlapping boards, (and sometimes committees), in a way which best serves the organisation and its members. This is not news to Council. When asked to describe the Law Society, you chose the words moribund, old fashioned and bureaucratic, (to name a few), and wanted (as I do), for the organisation to be less bureaucratic and more responsive and agile.
Yet, when Council was given the opportunity to bring about a change as to how the organisation is governed, regrettably from my perspective, it chose to vote against and/or delay such change - even though I know that many of you want to see meaningful change within the Law Society. Council voted against limiting terms - which would have enabled more members of the profession to get involved and critically decided that we cannot start implementing a new main board until council seats have been reviewed.
It had taken Council nearly a year to get to a point where a decision could have been made to start making changes to governance. As any implementation of a main board will not now start until further work has been undertaken on council seats, as optimistic as I am, I fail to see how this work can be completed in a timely way - particularly taking into account the external pressures on the Law Society to demonstrate effective and modern governance arrangements, which should not be underestimated.
I truly believe that the longer term future of the organisation rests with it having in place an effective governance structure. It is competing against hostile organisations which already have agile and effective governance structures in place. If the external environment was not so hostile, the Law Society could take its time to review its governance and make any changes at its own pace. However, the organisation does not have this luxury. Others are intent on harming it and the profession it serves. We should not give them any ability to be critical of us - and yet we have, as our failure to change means that we don't have the right governance arrangements to enable us to effectively respond to this hostile environment, leaving us vulnerable at this critical time.
I have agonised over my decision to leave the Law Society and it is with much regret. However, I do not believe that I can ensure that the Law Society is truly valued by its members, seen as relevant and its longer term future secured, without changes to governance.
I and my executive team, spend a disproportionate amount of time navigating our way through our governance, often reporting and seeking approval at multiple boards and at council. This wastes time and precious resources - which are currently funded by our members (of which I am one). I cannot in good faith continue to be CEO of an organisation which is seemingly not mindful of this and not prepared to change. I want to be part of an organisation with a board and council which works effectively and collaboratively with its executive. I want to take responsibility as CEO and be accountable. For me this means being part of a board which has the expertise, experience and skill sets to oversee a complex multi-million pound organisation. I believe that boards should make collective decisions which their senior executive are party to and which the board stands behind and is accountable for. I don't see the role of a CEO as merely attending and reporting to a board. If this is how council sees the role of the Law Society CEO, (which the agreed main board structure suggests it does), then unfortunately this is not me.
It is for this reason and because of the failure to agree to progress with the creation of a main board that I have decided to leave the Law Society. I cannot in good conscience continue to act as the CEO of an organisation when I do not support the decision by Council not to rigorously pursue governance reform in what I believe is in the best interests of the profession and the organisation. Therefore, just like any accountable board member who does not support a critical decision of that board, I feel that I am left with no option but to resign.
It truly has been an honour to serve the Law Society. I have nothing but the greatest respect for all those members who get involved and for the staff who I know are committed to the organisation's success. I do hope that my departure will prompt you to reconsider the current governance arrangements and to progress with making the changes I do believe you all recognise need to be made. I believe that this will help to set up the future CEO for success. However, without meaningful change you will be setting up any future CEO for failure.
I take this opportunity to thank you for your commitment to the solicitor profession of which I am proud to be a member. Please rest assured that whilst I remain CEO, I will continue to discharge my responsibilities to the best of my ability.
I wish you all the best for the future.