The Law Society of NSW has a formidable history of 180 years as a voice for the profession, one of Australia’s largest professional membership organisations and, through our role as a co-regulator, a guardian of lawyers’ ethical standards.
Times change, and with them, the need for us to examine closely whether our structures help us to be the most effective voice possible.
The Constitution of the Law Society requires that the Council review regularly whether the Council Reserved Positions adequately reflect the composition of the solicitor membership of the Society. Earlier this year, the Council resolved to broaden this exercise to include a wider governance review.
For clarity, Reserved Positions are a representative concept and, under the current constitution, are filled by two Councillors from each of the City, Country, Suburban, Corporate, Government, and Large Firm categories. One Councillor seat is also set aside for a Young Lawyer Councillor.
The Council has now completed our composition and governance review with the assistance of expert external governance consultants, Cameron Ralph Khoury and the involvement of Law Society stakeholders and members, including via a member-wide survey.
Following the review, the Council has identified areas of governance that are working well and areas that would benefit from improvement.
At this year’s AGM in late October, members will decide whether to adopt a package of reforms designed to bring the governance of the Law Society further into the 21st Century.
With 21 Councillors, the Law Society Council is too large for modern governance purposes. According to our research and advice, smaller boards make for better dynamics and more efficient decision-making. They also give voices a better chance of being heard. The Council therefore proposes to reduce its size to a more manageable and agile 15.
This would be done by reducing from two to one Councillor Reserved Position from all categories, except the Young Lawyer position.
The advice to us is that boards should be renewed frequently, to ensure skills and experience are refreshed. To that end, the package proposes Councillors have a term limit of three consecutive three-year terms.
Modern boards increasingly do not have a Treasurer, as those duties are best discharged at Committee and senior management levels. It’s proposed to remove the office of Treasurer from the Council.
The present maximum term of a Law Society President is one year. The reform package would allow the Council, in extenuating circumstances and subject to a rigorous approval regime, to extend the term of a Law Society President up to a maximum of two additional years.
Should members approve these changes at the AGM, the Council will work on two further non-constitutional changes.
These further improvements will involve the development of a more clarified role description for the President so that activities are focused on adding most value to the Law Society, and the introduction of a skills-focused CV requirement for candidates seeking election to Council, which will enhance the skills mix of Councillors.
These are big changes for the Law Society and not everyone will agree with them. But the reforms represent an important opportunity to make our Council more efficient and responsive to the demands of members and the duties it has in co-regulating the legal profession.
Whether or not you agree with these reforms, and you can’t make it to the AGM, I would be honoured to have your proxy.
The most important thing you can do is exercise your democratic right to steer the Law Society in the direction you believe is best.
Joanne van der Plaat is the 2022 President of the Law Society of NSW.