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‘If I had my time again, we would change more quickly than we have done.’ My interview with Law Society CEO, Des Hudson

Des HudsonDes Hudson has been one of the enduring faces at the Law Society since he took up the role of chief executive in 2006. After almost eight years at the helm, he is set to retire and depart Chancery Lane. SJ’s editor at large, Kevin Poulter, met Hudson to discuss his time at the society and asked what regrets, if any, he takes with him, and what the future holds for the society and the solicitor profession.

What first attracted you to the top job at the Law Society?

Back in 2004, I had started doing some work for another professional trade association and I got a taste for the work of professional bodies. It also struck me as an incredibly important and significant time for the society and that somebody needed to step up and take on the role.

I had been very proud to qualify and practise as a solicitor. I could see that it was a very challenging time with lots of uncertainty. I also thought the job would be very stimulating and demanding.

Is the job that you ended up doing the same as the one you expected to be doing?

No. Starting, I really didn’t have much idea as to what the job was going to be. There were some points that were really clear that turned out to be a constant throughout. The issue for me was that in these changed circumstances, what is the Law Society for? The issues around relevance, being effective, doing what is best for its members, and doing that in a way which is economically efficient were all factors.

Following the separation of regulation and representation, was it initially difficult to manage the relationship between the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority?

It could have gone lots of ways. To be involved in fairly tumultuous choices and decisions like that added to the challenge and the rewards of the job.

Is it fair to say that the Law Society is no longer the one-size-fits-all association that it used to be? Does it need to consider breaking itself up?

We need to do different things for different members. Clearly, Magic Circle firms don’t need the Law Society to do things that a top- 200 firm or a small practice does. I don’t think that breaking up helps. The scale and the resource of the Law Society is a reflection of the entire profession.

During my term, we have spent disproportionately on legal aid-dependent members. That has been the right thing to do but we are only able to do that because of our scale. If you look at the work we did in our intervention in the Mitchell case, again we were able to do that because of scale.

The approach I have taken is that what we need to do is segment the work we do to different types of member and member needs. That is a better way of trying to square that circle. We have made a start but we need to be much more focused in how we go about it.

Was the criticism aimed at you following the criminal legal aid row fair? Was the special general meeting (SGM) an appropriate use of time and money?

If you set up a membership organisation and draw up a constitution that says people are entitled to do this then it is absolutely wrong of the hired help, like me, to say that a meeting was a waste of money.

The Law Society did not carry its argument to a group of criminal practitioners. Did I and the Law Society listen to what was being said? Of course, we thought about it at considerable length. Do I think that I did the right thing? You bet.

Whether or not the decision on criminal legal aid was the right thing, our position was determined in accordance with our governance process. Those decisions went in front of boards and the council itself.Whatever criticism may have been made of me or Nick Fluck, the then Law Society president, what I thought was a hollow criticism was the idea that we had no mandate. You may not agree with our governance process, but under it there was a mandate.

At the moment, the way the body is set up, council is the ultimate decision-making body and is roughly two-thirds constituency-based members. A third is made up of practice areas that are not geographically represented and to ensure that we have diversity in council.

The way our constitution is written is that our SGM is a way in which, if there are egregious failures, or an inappropriate use of the process, or that council was asleep at the wheel, or was not consulted, there would be a way to bring those issues to a head. In that particular issue, council had taken the view of what was the right thing to do.

Is council irrelevant? Does it play no role? The way the constitution is constructed is that those geographical members need to be at the heart of and be the ultimate decision-making body. They need to be interacting with local practitioner groups, law societies and members. Recently, we have seen groups lobbying their local members. There are signs that, post-SGM, there is more awareness of that role.

Do you think there is a general apathy towards local law societies and the society generally from the profession?

There is a level of disengagement with local law societies, with the society itself and the council. But what is that? Is it that people are unhappy with what the society is doing? Is it that everyone is just massively busy and client interests come first? Is it that they feel dislocated and unhappy with many of the changes that have been forced on the profession? My guess is that it is all of those plus others. How you do something about it is much more difficult.

I don’t think that the absence of strike action is a result of apathy. I think it illustrates the enormous difference between the role of barristers and solicitors in publicly funded work. A barrister can pick and reject cases and can go on strike very easily. As a solicitor you run a business, you have signed a lease, you employ people, you’ve signed a four-year contract with the Ministry of Justice or the Legal Aid Agency; the idea that you can go on strike is faintly risible.

But that comes back to the criminal legal aid SGM, where solicitors were not going to go on strike, and therefore we have a different power dynamic with the MoJ than barristers.

Is the council representative of the profession?

It could be more representative and the Law Society has gone to considerable lengths to make sure that we make the council and the committees, which are vitally important, open and accessible to all.

We specifically look at the structure and the design, and try to make sure all features and aspects of the profession are represented in that final decision-making body. It could be better, but it is a very genuine and honourable attempt to get it right.

How would you change council if you could start from scratch?

I would change the role of council. The body that would act as the ultimate decision-maker I would have on a much smaller basis. I would take the large council we have at the moment and make it a congress or a forum where, once a quarter, the big issues are argued and debated. I would then also use that congress as the electoral college for the president.

Has council been friend or foe to you over the last eight years?

They have been friend. It would be nonsense for me to say that everyone on council agrees with me, or that I agree with everyone on council on every topic.

Clearly, there have been disagreements and differences of opinion. What has impressed me is that, in their own way, 99 per cent of those I have dealt with on council are trying to do the right thing by the profession.

What haven’t you been able to achieve that you wish you had?

If I had my time again, we would change more quickly, and radically, than we have done. I would like to have seen us make more progress on being able to service that segment of our members, communities or groups in ways that I have tried to map out. I would have liked to have seen earlier changes around things we are doing now, such as the ‘find a solicitor’ service.

Have you found it more difficult to make radical changes as time has gone on?

It has been more difficult to make those choices and decisions. I suspect that you find yourself slowed down by the decision you took a year ago or a compromise you may have made 18 months before. It is just inevitable that you eventually slow down.

That is why I think it is important that people don’t stay too long in roles of leadership. You need to hand over the reins of power.

Looking back over the last eight years do you think that the legal profession is now more unified or further apart?

We are in a different place, and that is not a way of avoiding the question, but it seems to me that whether we like it or not, we now have competition within the market. If you take CILEx as an example, the relationship between them and the Law Society is not as it was in 2006 and it can’t be. That is not to say that it is worse, it is just different.

Is there a battle between the Law Society and CILEx for membership?

Clearly there is now competition where there wasn’t before. I certainly don’t think of them as an enemy at the door and I hope they don’t think that of us. But what we are all planning to do; not everyone’s plan can work. Someone has to be the winner and someone has to be the loser. If you then started bringing in the regulators then the picture becomes even more complicated.

Are direct access barristers a threat to the solicitor profession?

It is a competitive dynamic. Is it a credible threat? Well the fact that half of them plan to do direct access business would see that half getting less work from solicitors. They must make their choice and live with it.

Do I think that barristers taking direct access instructions are going to be able to compete with all types of solicitor-led litigation? No, I don’t. Do I think that they could be a competitive supplier of services to major corporates and general counsels? Yes, but again, you are looking at a highly diversified market.

Look who acted for Pfizer when they were making their bid for AstraZeneca, compared to who had sweated blood and tears to get on Pfizer’s panel to do their day-to-day legal work. That same lesson is going to apply to direct access instructions and major solicitors firms.

Does that relationship between in-house solicitors and the Law Society need to be strengthened?

I think it needs to be built on. The Law Society has made a start. Historically, the fact of the matter is that the majority of the society’s focus, and the majority of those people who participate in its decision-making, have led us down the path of private practice. It is still the single largest group of our members. But increasingly we are recognising the need to be a professional body for all of our members. General counsels are a growing area so we have to do more there.

Do you think that the name ‘solicitor’ is now held in better or worse esteem by the public?

The respect in which the profession is held is very high. I’m often mystified when I look at stuff coming from the LSB or other sources saying solicitors aren’t very good. Day in, day out, solicitors in this country are playing a pivotal role in helping people confront difficult choices and they are seen as highly expert and trusted.

That is not to say that we don’t make mistakes. When you have 166,000 human beings, things are going to go wrong on occasion. That is not say that it couldn’t be better and that some solicitors need to do a lot more in terms of focus on their clients and the service they provide.

The forecast for junior lawyers has changed in recent years. What can the society do to make sure that junior lawyers have access to and are able to progress through the profession?

There are three things we can do. Without fear or favour, we need to be putting information out there to students to help them make informed choices through every stage of their career.

Second, we need to say that nothing is going to stay still. Solicitors became more successful than attorneys because they adapted to the needs to users of legal services. Nothing is forever; we have got to keep changing. If there is a different role, such as the one filled by paralegals, many of whom are expertly qualified and trained, then can we create more awareness that that role, in itself, can be fulfilling. Are there different ways in which people can plan and develop a career as a solicitor?

The third thing we need to do is confront the issue of why it is that many of our fellow citizens and parliamentarians don’t seem to share our feelings on the importance of the rule of law and due process. What is going wrong? What can we do better to open those ears to debate and discussion? Why is there such a negative attitude in this country towards human rights? Why do we seem to misunderstand or undervalue what they are?

What can the society do to maintain England’s reputation as the go-to jurisdiction for legal disputes?

We definitely have a role to play in company with others, such as major firms, the judiciary and central government. We all need to put our shoulder to that wheel because the competitive threat from other players is very significant. We need to make a decision as a society and as a country; what do we want our justice system to do? We have to be careful of the tail wagging the dog.

Many politicians and commentators may be asking whether some of the cases being heard in British courts are actually appropriately heard here. What we need to remember is that the justice system is here to serve the country and not necessarily as a means to earn foreign money. I can therefore understand why we need to have a debate on libel tourism.

That said it is important that all parts of the parliamentary spectrum understand the contribution that the legal system makes to the creation and generation of wealth in UK plc. We have been working very hard on a cross-party basis to make that clear.

Having London as a place where international legal business is transacted and where there is unquestionable confidence in the quality of our judicial and legal processes is important to the generation of wealth, and is one of the areas where we have an economic advantage. We should do what we can to make it last.

What are the main challenges for the Society over the next 12 months to five years?

We need to continue to create a role for the society that carries the support of all of its members. If the Law Society can’t do that then it clearly has a big challenge. Beyond that it needs to provide relevant and contemporary services on the issues that amount to its various members. Its scale is a plus but that means that it needs to organise itself and not try to offer a one-size-fits-all approach. It also needs to offer the widest range of practitioners to be involved in council, our boards and committees.

Looking at the quality of advice that I have had for the presidents I have worked with, and our various committees, it has been first rate. It also does its best work when it is working in partnership with practitioner experts. How we galvanise that and share expertise is massively important.

What has been the biggest thorn in your side over the last eight years?

My own timidity, I would suspect.

What advice would you give the new chief executive for their first 100 days?

My advice would be to sit on their hands for those 100 days, listen, think, work it all out and then act. Do it quickly and do it once.

What is next for you when you hand over the reins?

Well I’m not planning on taking up golf or going fly fishing. I would like to stay busy and be involved and to give a little back if I could and to be involved with interesting people. One of the great privileges of this job is that I have had the opportunity to work with some very able and talented people so I would like to keep that up if I can.

What I am not going to do is to be holding court downstairs in the reading room or commenting ever on Law Society matters.

Going back to the application process in 2006, if you knew what was to come would you do it again?

Yes. I’ve had a great time.

This interview first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 18 July 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission

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