NEW ZEALAND’S 14 district law societies are considering merging to form a single, nationwide professional body.
This would involve abandoning the understanding on which they agreed to the profession’s new governance model under the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006.
As part of the changes that will take effect in July next year under the Act, district law societies will lose their statutory status. Law society membership will also become voluntary and the national New Zealand Law Society (NZLS) will become the regulator of the profession. Law societies will have to incorporate or their assets will be transferred to the NZLS.
Until recently the district law societies had planned to incorporate and be members of the NZLS Council, carrying out regulatory functions on contract to the NZLS. It had been assumed that they would continue to manage their own representative functions and develop their own membership retention strategies. Essentially, the historical governance arrangements would be kept in tact.
However, the Auckland District Law Society, the largest in New Zealand with 4500 members and a $10 million balance sheet, has proposed a “One Society” plan under which all the district law societies would not incorporate but would act as branches of the NZLS.
Auckland District Law Society President, Andrew Gilchrist said it makes sense for the district societies to merge.
“At the moment we have 14 districts in New Zealand of which they all have statutory functions and the crazy thing is that the Auckland District Law Society have about 45 per cent of all lawyers nationally. Auckland and Wellington make up two-thirds of the lawyers. We are very enthusiastic about the one society model because we think it would be better for the profession. There would be greater national cohesion, we’d be able to move products and services on a national basis, have greater clout as one organisation and certainly our national firms with offices in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have a greater affinity to a national law society,” he said.
A spokesperson from the NZLS said a working group was currently examining the proposal.
“The latest on the issue is that a small group — comprising Chris Darlow, who completed his term as NZLS president at the end of March, retiring NZLS Vice-President Kerry Ayers of Christchurch and former NZLS Vice-President Warwick Deuchrass of Dunedin — is currently exploring the issue,” the spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the proposal has been met with a mixed reaction from district law societies, some of which have expressed concern over a loss of financial control and control of their own destinies.
“One law society was initially negative on it but they are starting to come around. The noises we are getting from people down in Wellington is that they are generally in approval. The issue is that if one of the big law societies says ‘no it won’t work’ then it can’t go ahead. But if one or two of the small ones said no it could still go ahead but they would be sidelined and marginalised,” Gilchrist said.
Societies fearing a loss of local identity may face a greater threat if they don’t merge — that is a threat to their very existence. Once society membership becomes voluntary, it will be harder to get lawyers to pay membership fees, especially given that in New Zealand there is no requirement for continuing legal education (CLE), unlike Australia where this requirement means there is an incentive for lawyers to join societies to receive large discounts on CLE seminars.
The NZLS working group is expected to report back on the “One Society” plan at a meeting of the NZLS Council in June.
“I think we have a one-off opportunity to do something now that will last for at least 30 years and if we don’t do something now we will have missed our chance,” Gilchrist said.