President's Letter (August 2015)

It feels very strange to be sitting down to write a column headed “President’s Report”.  Presidents are people of authority who have leadership skills.  I’m not one of them. 

When I went on an assertiveness training course several years ago I was taught about various forms of authority (the three I remember are moral authority, the authority of experience and the authority of office). The outcome of the session, after we had completed the various exercises set for us, was that I had no leadership qualities whatsoever. My moral authority was even called into question because the facilitator thought that the reason why I was the only delegate to solve all the puzzles we were set was that I had cheated because I must have done the exercise before! I hadn’t, but the facilitator didn’t believe me.

So I’m wary as I undertake the office of president of Cardiff & District Law Society. I’ve been on Cardiff’s council for 17 years and have observed at close quarters many past presidents during their tenures in office. I’ve worked closest with Tom Danter, my predecessor. Tom was an excellent president, initiating events to engage younger members of the profession, such as the childrens’ parties, and involving commercial firms which had recently disengaged from the Society (throughsuch as the managing partners’ lunch). It is therefore no coincidence that membership of the Society rose to record levels during Tom’s presidency. The Society is deeply indebted to Tom for all his hard work.

Lawyers solve problems (which is why I was able to solve the puzzles at the assertiveness training course), so I have had to work out how to solve the problem of succeeding Tom as president. My solution appears modest, but takes into account that I already do a fair amount of work for the profession as Law Society council member.

The first thing is to build on the initiatives of Tom’s year in office. It is important that events such as the Childrens’ Christmas and summer parties, which have been so popular, continue and become annual events in the Society’s calendar. The Society is very grateful to Synergy Costs for sponsoring the successful summer party on 4th July and that Synergy has agreed to sponsor this year’s Christmas party, which is taking place at Parc Play on 12 December. The finance and policy committee, under the resourceful leadership of our Vice- President, Paul Hopkins, is looking at how to progress the initiative of publicising Cardiff as a centre of legal excellence. This concept emerged from the managing partners’ lunch and Chris Nott’s presentation earlier this year.

The second thing we need to do is ensure that our sponsors and members are happy and feel they get their moneysworth from their investment in the Society. The two go hand in hand, because we can only make our members happy by holding free or subsidised social events (such as the evening at Chepstow Races on 8 July) and arranging discounts from various retailers and restaurants with the generosity of our sponsors. If our sponsors withdraw and cannot be replaced, members will get less for their membership and may not renew their subscriptions. So I urge all our members to support our sponsors. And use your membership cards to obtain the discounts on offer from various shops and restaurants. You can find which outlets offer these discounts at the Members’ Discounts page on the Society’s website.

My initiative, to add to the social events, members’ discounts and pushing the profile of Cardiff as a centre of legal excellence, is to try to attract speakers to Cardiff to speak to the local profession about important matters which affect practice and the profession. I hope to arrange two speaker meetings in the autumn and two in the New Year.

The first speaker, who will visit Cardiff on 14 October, is Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director of education and training. In the autumn the SRA will be consulting the profession and various stakeholders on its proposal to assess students at the point of qualification to ensure they satisfy the Competence Statement for Solicitors which the SRA published earlier this year. My colleague Byron Jones wrote an article about the SRA’s preferred option for assessment in the last issue of Legal News. I teach on the LPC at Cardiff Law School so I must declare an interest in this issue. But I must also stress its importance to the future of the profession.

All of us qualified by passing testing assessments, whichever route to qualification we took. The majority of solicitors took 6 years to qualify, following the well-trodden path of qualifying law degree, vocational course (the old Part 2, the Solicitors’ Finals or the LPC) and 2 years’ articles or training contract. Many who wanted to qualify were unable to pass the exams and couldn’t qualify. The Legal Services Board, to whom the SRA is accountable, states in its guidance to the regulators that they should move away from “time served” models, such as training contracts for fixed periods, and “facilitate easier movement between the professions, during training, at the point of qualification and beyond”. This is a threat to the continuance of solicitors as a separate profession and presages a blurring of the legal professions in which all will simply become legal advisers. The LSB’s desire for education and training requirements to be set “at the minimum level at which an individual is deemed competent for the activity or activities they are authorised to do” is a blueprint for de-skilling solicitors, barristers and chartered legal executives, so they only know what they need to know. This, too, is dangerous: all of us know that the “need to know” basis is a justification for ignorance. The SRA has some room for manoeuvre in how it implements this guidance, so if you wish to preserve the profession of solicitor and care about how the profession fares in the future, you should become engaged in the debate on qualifying as a solicitor and make your views known to Julie when she comes to meet the local profession. I hope that all training partners, law schools and other education establishments such as Kaplan altior, our preferred CPD provider, will come to listen to and question Julie Brannan.

The Law Society’s new chief executive, Catherine Dixon, has agreed to visit Cardiff in November to meet the profession. The Law Society’s council will approve her new strategy for the Law Society in its meeting in October and I hope this will provide a focus for her visit. Catherine has been in her post since the beginning of the year but has only visited South Wales once, to meet the staff at the Wales office. I hope we can give her a warm Welsh welcome when she visits us in the dark wet month of November.

My activity as president, and immediately before I became president, has concentrated on dining. In May I attended the excellent Pontypridd and Rhondda Law Society dinner as a guest of the Law Society and on 26 June I was a guest of Clive Thomas, the president of Monmouthshire Law Society at its midsummer ball at the Celtic Manor Resort. This was a splendid occasion and Clive, Sarah Williams-Martin and the other committee members who organised the event did an absolutely superb job. I practised in Newport for 5 years in the late 80s and early 90s and it was good to renew acquaintance with many of my contemporaries who I hadn’t seen for nearly 25 years.

Earlier that day, Michael Walters, Richard Fisher and I attended the Local Law Societies’ Annual Conference at the Celtic Manor Resort. Clive Thomas was host, Emma Waddingham chaired two of the sessions and Richard, Michael and I contributed to discussions, so the three of us played our part in the event, but once again, the contributions of Clive Thomas and Sarah Williams-Martin were immense. Congratulations on organising such an excellent conference. 

 

David Dixon
dixond@cardiff.ac.uk

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