Eight years is a long time at the helm of an organisation like the Law Society, and so as he departs Chancery Lane as its chief executive for the last time, Des Hudson takes a lot of baggage with him. But what is the legacy of a man who started off as a breath of fresh air after taking over from the unpopular Janet Paraskeva, and ended up on the wrong end of a vote of no confidence from the profession?
Mr Hudson undoubtedly has considerable virtues. He has been a strong, persuasive and eloquent advocate for the solicitors’ profession and for the Law Society; it must have been frustrating at times to have to take the back seat to presidents who (in some cases, at least) were markedly less able than him.
His background in business helped him make the society a more commercial organisation – which would have been one of the reasons he was appointed – with the Conveyancing Quality Scheme his greatest success. But in a bid to boost the number of money-generating sections run by the society, he also upset various sectoral interests which already had their own groups, such as in-house lawyers.
Mr Hudson appeared something of a ‘centraliser’, who believed the society should be at the hub of everything, but equally the range of services on offer to solicitors from their representative body has increased out of all recognition over the past eight years.
Perhaps the most visible failing was the Law Society as a lobbying organisation. By Mr Hudson’s own admission, the expensive ‘Sound off for justice’ campaign against what became the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was, if anything, counterproductive. As, in my view, was the fact that it ran its own campaign alongside others, such as Justice for All, rather than together.
The same happened with part 2 of the Act, introducing the Jackson reforms. I have written before about the collective failure of lobbying groups – the Law Society, APIL, MASS and Access to Justice Action Group – to come together to form a common position, at least until it was far too late. My understanding was that the society’s intransigence was a major problem.
It may well have been that in both cases nothing would have stopped the LASPO steamroller, but the society did not do the best it could have done. In my view, its determination to march to its own beat, rather than as one with others in the same camp, has been an error, one perhaps born of hubris. The Law Society tends to believe its own publicity about how good an organisation it is, and has often been remiss in not sharing the credit for successes.
When it came to the latest round of criminal legal aid reforms, Mr Hudson changed tactics, engaging with government rather than being a noisy critic. This led him down a different path to trouble, and ultimately the special general meeting last December that saw the vote of no confidence, albeit a narrow one, in him and the then president Nick Fluck.
But there never seemed the slightest chance that either would resign, and instead the society responded characteristically with a series of roadshows around the country to engage with members. (At times in recent years, it has seemed like Chancery Lane’s mantra has been ‘When in doubt, put on a roadshow’.)
But whatever the rights and wrongs of the position the society has taken on criminal legal aid, I think it speaks to the measure of the man that Mr Hudson did not choose the ‘easy’ road of implacable opposition to the government’s plans – he’d learned the hard way that it was highly unlikely to work. Instead he took the unpopular route, but the one that he believed was best for the profession. I have admired him (and others at Chancery Lane, such as Richard Miller) for this.
There was no reward for engagement with the government, however. Last year Mr Hudson had high hopes that the Ministry of Justice would entertain the changes to the legal regulatory regime that the society was pushing for – a return of regulatory power to the Law Society council from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). This would have been a huge leaving present to his employer, but as I have noted before, it was scuppered by the intervention of the big City law firms.
Thus the Law Society is a body still struggling to define its place in the new legal world. The big firms think it is there for the small firms and vice versa, and it is frequently blamed for the ills in the profession, sometimes fairly, often not, because events are usually beyond its control. It is a quasi-public sector body that has long suffered from a stifling bureaucracy, which from what I can tell Mr Hudson has not tamed. The 100-member council does little to help anyone. The idea that it is essentially a trade union clearly sits uneasily.
Further, the SRA wants proper structural independence, not the operational independence it has now, and this is in part because of the strained relations that have existed between the two sides, with Mr Hudson at the heart of many of the disagreements.
So what does this all add up to? I have been canvassing the views of several people in recent weeks, and there is a feeling that simply by keeping the good ship Law Society upright over the past eight years, Des Hudson has done a good job. This might sound like faint praise, but it’s not meant to be. It could easily have gone under at times.
So farewell, Des. You’ve been good copy, and for that I thank you. And you know what? We’ve had our disagreements over the years, but I think I might even miss you a bit.
Neil Rose is the editor of Legal Futures, you can read his blog here.