Law Society Chief Executive resigns

Citing the Law Society’s failure to embrace governance reform, Chief Executive Catherine Dixon has resigned after two years in the role.

She commented on how the Law Society would be perceived in a letter to the members of the ruling council, stating that without altering the way it is governed, it would fail to be seen as a “representative of solicitors and the diverse solicitor profession.”

“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.”

Navigation of the often overlapping committees and boards she found “impossible” when it came to doing so in a way which would best suit the members and the organisation itself.

“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.”

Despite acknowledging the improvements that had been made during her time in the role, Ms Dixon went on to highlight the delays in the developments.

“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.”

Ms Dixon went on to mention the imminent need for the governance changes to be made, given the nature of the external environment and increasing vulnerability of the organisation.

“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.”

Often seeking approval and reporting at boards as well as council, she further commented on the “disproportionate amount of time” spent by her and her team on navigating their way through the governance.

“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.”

Law Society President, Robert Bourns, also commented on Ms Dixon’s resignation. Giving a statement he 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.”

He then acknowledged Ms Dixon’s comments and highlighted the need for the changes to take place in order for the Society to progress.

“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.”

Chris Harris, Managing Director of Lawyer Checker commented: “It is a sad day for any profession when a Chief Executive stands down due to the inability to embrace governance reform. It should not however come as a surprise when the organisation includes a Council of 100 members, a President whose tenure is merely a year and thrown into mix there are a multitude of other committees, campaigns and still some overlap with budgets and technology with the regulator. Every Council Member should be asking whether they’re acting positively to embrace change. Large conveyancing firms in particular seem under-represented in decision making process at Chancery Lane.”

Eddie Goldsmith, Chairman of The Conveyancing Association (CA) commented: “It’s with some regret that we note Catherine’s resignation from the Law Society – her many achievements to date provided significant optimism that its restructure would enable the organisation to better support its conveyancing members.  Catherine’s common-sense approach, and her firm hand on the tiller, had already delivered results, for example, making decisions on CQS approvals quicker. However it’s clear from her resignation that she has been frustrated by the lack of speed in delivering, what she believes, are essential governance changes. We are sorry to see her go.

“As the leading trade body for serious conveyancers, the CA continues to welcome engagement with the Law Society and other representative bodies in order to improve the way we convey. We will continue to produce common sense guides to support our member firms, especially in areas where perhaps the convoluted structures that Catherine alludes to within the Law Society Council have stood in the way of speedy decisions and practical solutions in the past.

“We do though look forward to welcoming Catherine’s replacement and hope they will be able to continue her excellent work in delivering a modern Law Society.

“It’s our own aim to fully represent the conveyancing market, and would urge any firms that are seeking strong representation and practical support and guidance, to contact us about CA membership. We have made significant strides in 2016 and, following the publication of our White Paper at the end of last year, have clear aims and ambitions for improving the process for all stakeholders, as well as a commitment to, and track-record in, delivering a host of benefits for our membership.”

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