THREE STATE law society presidents have flagged the national profession model and structure of the Law Council of Australia (LCA) as two major focuses for 2007, as well as good relationships with the top national firms in the country.
Presidents Geoff Dunlevy (NSW Law Society) and Geoff Provis (Law Institute of Victoria) also aim to campaign strongly for tort law reform, while Maria Saraceni (WA Law Society) is keeping an eye on experienced lawyer movement out of large firms into smaller boutique or in-house counsel practices.
New NSW president Dunlevy expects big things in 2007, being a state election year.
He described efforts toward a national profession as progressing reasonably well, with the groundwork “basically bedded down on the eastern seaboard”.
“Anything that breaks down artificial barriers and reinforces that we really are one single nation I think is very positive,” he said.
Top-tier interest in securing a seat at the LCA table through the Major Law Firm Group will help the national body stay relevant to the profession, as according to Dunlevy, “the large firms want to engage with the [LCA]. They want to ensure it remains a worthwhile, energetic organisation, and I think the broader profession wants that as well”.
In Victoria, Provis agreed that the structure of the LCA will be a major issue this year. Although some of the “principal aspects” of a seat at the LCA table caused Provis “slight misgivings”, he is “the first to say that I support the proposition”.
Although to some the progress of the national profession is “glacial”, according to Provis, it should be given top priority across all states, because of its far-reaching advantages.
“It’s not something that matters just to large firms,” he said, “but also matters to any smaller practitioners that operate across state boundaries.”
The Victorian president also believes the LIV’s relationship with the major firms is “generally speaking very good, strong [and] robust”.
“Most of the major firms have all of their members as [LIV] members. There are a couple that don’t, but I’m confident that [a seat at the LCA], together with some other changes, will change that over time,” he said.
“I look forward, confidently, to expanded membership from those large firms.”
Dunlevy said a similarly good relationship existed in Sydney. “The [NSW] Law Society is enjoying a very positive relationship with the large firms. They are key drivers in the legal services industry, and the Law Society will always do its best to ensure that we meet their needs.”
Over in the west, WA Law Society president Maria Saraceni, received a draft of the state’s new Legal Practice Act right before Christmas, and is working now towards the 1 July enacting date.
But in answer to suggestions that strain may be developing between major firms and representative law bodies, she has seen little evidence of it spreading west.
“I think there is an issue in Victoria and New South Wales; because the large law firms have their control in the east coast, they dictate what will happen,” she said.
A meeting late last year with the WA heads of the major firms demonstrated their relationship with the Law Society is very good. In fact “not one of them had an issue,” she said.
According to Saraceni, Perth has seen many partners from larger firms leaving to establish boutique practices or take up in-house counsel positions, particularly at resources companies such as Woodside and Rio Tinto.
The resources boom has helped such companies offer lucrative enticements, allowing them increasingly to attract senior lawyers to their ranks.
“Usually it was the younger lawyers becoming in-house counsel, whereas this is at the very senior level,” she said.
The future of law societies as state-based representative bodies was, at least in Victoria, by no means certain.
“Over time, the Victorian view is that we will have one Australian Law Society,” Provis said.
“We in Victoria, in the LIV, are prepared to give up assets, and give up independence, for that purpose,” he said. “Now that’s a long term goal, but it’s one that I think is worth aiming for.”
Whether his colleagues in the other states and territories agree is a question yet to be answered.