Ben Tarrant reports to AGM on his year in office banner

Ben Tarrant reports to AGM on his year in office

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At the Bristol Law Society Annual General Meeting, outgoing President, Ben Tarrant of TLT reported on his year in office. Here is his report.

1. Introduction

In November 2013 we had a choice. The decline had been halted and we had enjoyed two years of growth. We could have decided to play it safe and keep going as we were or we could have grasped the nettle, taken further steps to reform Bristol Law Society and make it an organisation fit for the future, more representative of the legal sector and best placed to make the most of opportunities and be agile enough to deal with any threats. I am pleased to say that we did the latter. The theme of this year has been the transition of a society which performed well for several years, had re-engaged with members and was back on the map as a professional organisation into a well structured and well managed business which more people want to engage with, which has a bit of a bounce and positive air, which is truly representative of the legal sector and reflects the confidence we should all have in the Bristol legal sector.

This is all against a background where many local law societies are experiencing difficulties and are taking a long hard look at themselves. Most are considering whether their models and structures are appropriate for the future and are adapting accordingly.

This year the Executive and Council have implemented changes and taken decisions which put Bristol Law Society in pole position to meet the challenges ahead and to ensure that the future of Bristol Law Society is bright.

2. Business plan

In 2012 we prepared a three year business plan. The picture until that point was far from perfect. Turnover was reducing year on year; income was reducing and our capital reserves were disappearing. Over the last 2 years we have worked hard to meet and exceed the targets set out in the business plan – to stem the reducing income from subscriptions; increase membership numbers; forge closer and two way relationships with sponsors; review and improve income streams; review and reduce outgoings. We also needed to re-state our value and benefit; connect with members and firms; improve our contribution and profile at Joint V and ASWLS and increase our representational function. Such was the task ahead - we conservatively set ourselves 3 years to achieve these objectives. I am delighted to say that after a monumental effort and as a result of the commitment of past presidents Nick Dell, Ashley Palminteri and now myself, together with Executive and Council we have already achieved the objectives set in 2012 and later this month we will sit down and produce a plan to cover the next 3 – 5 years and present this for approval in due course. That plan will be different - more outward looking, more ambitious, more challenging.

3. Membership

The 2012 AGM authorised the introduction of corporate membership and by November 2013 we had 13 firms signed up. I am pleased to say that we now have 22 corporate members and we plan to extend that number over the coming months as we deal with the 2014/2015 renewals. The current law firm corporate members are Barcan Woodward, Beale & Co, Burges Salmon, Cooke Painter, DAC Beachcroft, Foot Anstey, Gregg Latchams, Irwin Mitchell, Lyons Davidson, Michelmores, Osborne Clarke, Paragon Costs Solutions, Thrings, TLT, Veale Wasbrough Vizards, Wards.

There is also a scheme for barristers chambers and the following sets are members - 3PB, Guildhall Chambers, No5, Queen Square Chambers, St John's Chambers.

There is no doubt that the introduction of corporate rates and the resulting high take up by law firms and chambers in many ways saved Bristol Law Society. However, we are acutely aware that membership numbers amongst the in house, sole practitioner and small to medium firms and firms in the Bristol surrounds are not as high as they could be. There have been effort made this year to address this which will need to continue into next year and beyond. It is not a 12 month solution and we must all turn our minds to thinking about innovate solutions to address the comparatively low membership numbers in these categories.

There was a feeling amongst Executive and Council that until 2012 Bristol Law Society had somewhat lost its identity and was not clear on its purpose so therefore we decided it was necessary to restate the purpose of Bristol Law Society and the benefits of membership. We are not alone. Consider the current debate going on at the national law society and each and every law society around the country. We therefore produced a flyer detailing the purpose and role of Bristol Law Society and the benefits of membership. Each member of Council has a bundle of flyers and they are readily available for general distribution. Our new website and increased volume of activity on social media platforms is key to us getting our message across.

4. Bristol Law Society Recruitment and Careers Service

Members will remember that pre-2011 a key benefit to members and an integral part of our identity was the recruitment service. It was something Bristol Law Society was "famous" for. When we ceased to operate the recruitment service Bristol Law Society and the Bristol legal sector suffered. As you know Helen Read joined Bristol Law Society in March 2013 to restart this function. There was a rebrand during 2013 and since then Helen has worked incredibly hard to re-establish links with firms and businesses and to build the "BLS Recruitment" brand. 

We currently have around 80 candidates registered. This year we have made 4 permanent placements and 2 temporary contract placements which has generated income of £16,520. We have also made offers on 4 permanent positions (one of which was a partner appointment) and 2 temporary contracts which if accepted would have generated additional income of £45,900.

"BLS Recruitment" is on the preferred supplier list for 4 of the large Bristol firms. We are able to send CV's to a further 12 firms and many smaller firms use "BLS Recruitment" on an ad hoc basis.

We have invested in a new recruitment database which will link into our new website when this goes live shortly. This will enable vacancies to be uploaded automatically to the website, social media and jobsboards. Candidates who register will automatically have key details uploaded onto the database.

The market is buoyant in certain areas – large corporate firms are recruiting heavily and there is a shortage of good real estate lawyers. Generally there is a skills gap in the 0 – 5 PQE space. In the smaller firms there is a demand for conveyancing and private client lawyers but again good quality candidates are difficult to find.

We have also recognised that members value the objective professional advice we are able to give and therefore the function is therefore now known as "BLS Recruitment and Careers Service" to properly reflect the wide range of benefits provided.

5. Representation

One criticism levelled at the national law society and local law societies alike is the perception that not enough is done to represent members interests at a local and national level.  When people are considering whether to join Bristol Law Society or continue to pay for membership representation is a key consideration.  This is where local law societies have an opportunity to stand out and be different.

5.1 Consultations

This year we have seen many critical issues for members fall for consideration and response and I am pleased to say that Bristol Law Society has responded to consultations on legal aid, professional indemnity insurance, the privatisation of the Land Registry and probate. We have a good network of lawyers and other individuals who we can call on to assist with such matters, both from Council and member firms. We also organised a coach to take members from Bristol to Chancery Lane to attend the SGM where a vote of no confidence in the president and chief executive of the national Law Society was held.

We hosted a Q&A event with Stephen Williams MP in April 2014 where we were able to express views on a range of subjects including legal aid, the need for MP's to engage with business and the importance of the legal sector to the Bristol economy.

We are fortunate to have Ian Kelcey of Kelcey & Hall as Bristol Council member for the national Law Society and Matthew Still as South West Regional Manager. Particular note must be made of Ian's contribution on the subject of legal aid and thanks expressed to Matthew Still for his part in getting various officers of the national Law Society to come to Bristol to attend a number of Bristol Law Society events.

2016 will see elections for the Bristol Council member. This will be an important event for Bristol as let us also not forget that Robert Bourns senior partner of TLT and current deputy vice president of the national Law Society should become president during that year too.

5.2 Representative bodies

We must not underestimate the importance of our membership of two very active and important working groups – Joint V (as of November 5th ) and ASWLS.

ASWLS (Association of South West Law Societies) is a group comprising the local law societies of Bristol, Monmouthshire, Cornwall, Plymouth, Devon & Somerset and Gloucestershire & Wiltshire. We meet every 4 months in Taunton to discuss issues of concern for the societies, members and we share knowledge and expertise. This year we have collectively responded to 2 consultations on behalf of our 10,000 combined membership. This year we have started monthly conference calls for all of the presidents of each local law society which has helped us be more responsive to issues which may arise and to action on decisions more quickly. We are currently working on a strategy to increase engagement with members across the southwest as well as increasing the profile of ASWLS by launching a website and a presence on social media platforms.

Bristol will need to put forward someone to be president of ASWLS in 2016. This presents Bristol with an excellent opportunity to promote the south west legal sector and to help implement the ambitious plans for ASWLS over the next 3 years.

Joint V is a group comprising the law societies of Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. We meet 3 times a year with each society taking it in turn to host a meeting. Bristol hosted the meeting back in July on the same day as our summer party which was a great way to showcase Bristol and all that it has to offer. This group forges strong relationships with a number of the main commercial centres outside London and represents 40% of the profession. It is an important voice and the national Law Society listens to Joint V – the SRA and the national Law Society have all engaged and met with us during the year.

5.3 National conferences

We attended the Presidents and Secretaries conference in London in May 2014 and the Local Law Societies Conference in Bolton in October 2014. This gives us the opportunity to meet with law societies from all over England and Wales and to shape the future agenda at the national Law Society as well as collectively address issues and challenges facing the profession and local law societies.

5.4 Law surgery

Due to low numbers of attendees the decision was taken to discontinue the surgeries with Matthew Still the South West Regional Manager of the Law Society and Ian Kelcey, national Law Society Council member for Bristol. We are acutely aware of the need to give members access to these key individuals and we are considering alternative ways to enable members to express their views and concerns moving forwards. It is possible that our new website can provide a platform for this.

5.5 Other professionals

Executive and Council have made a particular effort this year to engage with and forge relationships with other professional groups both in Bristol and further afield. Bristol Law Society is for the benefit of all those working in the legal sector in Bristol and the legal sector is a fundamental contributor to the region's economy. We need to ensure Bristol Law Society is engaged, relevant and active and an integral part of the Bristol business sector. We have therefore increased and in some cases started engagement with the sole practitioners group, the Women's Lawyers Division, the Junior Lawyers Division, the Junior Chamber, ICAEW, Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment, Business West, BPAA and CBI South West.

We have also made efforts to re-establish links with practitioners in Bath and we have been instrumental in getting a new networking group off the ground comprising Bath lawyers. A quiz was held in Bath in September and attracted around 60 attendees. Bath Law Society ceased to operate around 10 years ago and it is good to see a willingness to engage and network in the Bath market and I am pleased that we have been able to be part of that.

5.6     Council

As part of our efforts to engage with various groups operating within the legal sector in Bristol and to recognise the need for Bristol Law Society to reflect the views and experiences of a wide range of professionals, firms, chambers, organisations and disciplines we have invited individuals from CILEX, Bath, Junior Lawyers Division, Women's Lawyers Division, Sole Practitioners Group, the Bar, costs lawyers, universities/ educational establishments and the national Law Society to attend Council meetings and get involved in our work. We are open to representatives of other groups to join us. We see this collaborative approach as being critical to making sure we truly represent the diverse legal sector in Bristol and not just one part of it.

6. Sponsorship

We have established relationships with a large number of sponsors and great effort is made by Executive and Council to maintain these relationships and develop new ones. There is no doubt that attracting and retaining sponsorship is becoming more difficult than ever and requires more effort to achieve our targets. For this reason Helen Read has been appointed "Business Development Manager" for Bristol Law Society. Helen is tasked with being the relationship manager for all of our sponsors and corporate firms as well as attracting new sponsors and support to Bristol Law Society. Helen will also be the constant presence while successive presidents, executives and councils come and go.

We are proud of our strategic partnership agreement with Lloyds Bank, Smith & Williamson and UWE and our solid relationship with other businesses and organisations in the legal sector but we must not rest on our laurels and we must continue to seek new opportunities to secure the future of Bristol Law Society.

7. Training

The market for training continues to be demanding and the proposed changes to CPD may further challenge the way in which training is offered and what people want from us. However, we are confident about the future of training provided by Bristol Law Society. The product we offer is excellent and we firmly believe that people will continue to attend the events we organise due a combination of needing to continue "personal development" when the changes come into force, the quality of the speakers and events we organise, value for money and the fact that we bring people together for great networking opportunities.

This year we have hosted "Linked In" training and an "In House lawyers" event in the law library, a private client conference at Clarke Willmott, a property conference at Osborne Clarke and a litigation conference at Bond Dickinson.

Each of these events sold out and together were our most profitable events of the year. Feedback has been very positive and each year the events get better and better. My thanks to Derek Jenkins, Gary Lightwood, Michael Westbrook, Sarah Pullin, Becky Moyce, Richard Gore and Helen Read for their part in delivering such an excellent range of conferences and also to our host firms Clarke Willmott, Bond Dickinson and Osborne Clarke.

Executive and Council have to date taken the view that it is better to hold a small number of conferences and or training events each year and ensure the standard and quality of the product is maintained and even improved as opposed to trying to run lots of seminars and risk the quality declining.

That said in response to suggestions made by members we are looking intothe feasibility of introducing an "express CPD" programme from January 2015 to last no more than 45 minutes and hosted and run by our sponsors and other partners over a lunchtime but we will survey members before taking further steps to implement this.

8. Legal Life, Linked In, Twitter and Website

Our publications, internet profile, website, and forms of social media such as Linked In and Twitter are crucial to the profile of Bristol Law Society and engagement with members. It is also vital for the future growth and new opportunities. I am pleased to say that I have been "tweeting" all year and during this time we have increased the number of followers of Bristol Law Society to over 800. That number has increased by 50 people since October 2014 alone. Our "BLS Recruitment" Twitter account has around 60 followers and that number is growing each month. Our Linked In page has 316 connections, an increase of 90 from November 2013.  These numbers will grow once our new website is launched.

In recognition of this we are currently in the final stage of approving our new website which will be launched at the end of 2014. The process has taken longer than envisaged but when it is launched we hope that you find it to be much more user friendly, interactive and relevant.

My thanks to Marcus Keppel-Palmer for his efforts in producing our monthly e-zine Legal Life and for keeping our website up to date with all that is happening during the year. Thank you also to those who have connected with us in Linked In and started following us on Twitter.

For information the relevant Twitter and Linked In details are:-

Linked In –  Bristol Law Society

Twitter   -  @BristolLawSoc


9. Library and office

For hundreds of years Bristol Law Society and the Law Library have been inextricably linked. The move to online resources and the cancellation of a grant from the Ministry of Justice led to the decision being taken to stop maintaining the Law Library as an up to date resource for members. This was and continues to be a disappointment to some members and I think caused a bit of an identity crisis for Bristol Law Society but I firmly believe that we have managed to move on now and use the history of the Law Library in a positive manner over the last 2 years. We have accepted that we will never go back to maintaining a law library and instead celebrate its history and think of ways of using the space in different ways.

The library has once again become a focal point for the Bristol legal sector. We have hosted some incredible events this year such as the Great War commemoration event in September attended by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Mayor, High Sherriff, no fewer than 10 past presidents., the NQ event in October which attracted around 30 NQ's and for the first time 16 pupil barristers. The Court Service, the Sole Practitioners group, the Women's Lawyers Division, the Junior Lawyers Division, UWE, sponsors, member firms and others have all used the space to run events and bring people together. There is also free wifi for members and a boardroom which members can hire.

In response to members raising concerns about the decision to stop maintaining the Law Library we have examined whether it will be feasible to host a LexisNexis or Westlaw terminal in the law library but for commercial reasons it has not been possible to reach agreement with the providers due to their concerns about us taking business away from potential and existing customers. We have therefore decided that until a viable and cost effective solution is available we will not introduce a research terminal in the law library for the time being.

As I mention below Bristol Law Society needs to decide whether maintaining and occupying such large premises and maintaining a library of materials which are hardly used really reflects the aims and ambitions of the Society; whether it is in the best interests of members and a good use of members funds. We retain some very interesting and valuable publications which may be better looked after and preserved elsewhere. If Bristol Law Society is truly to complete its transition to a vibrant and modern membership organisation and become a streamlined, profitable, agile and well managed business then does it need the Law Library or will the need to "preserve" the Law Library act as a hindrance?

10. Management structure

As part of our analysis of Bristol Law Society, its aims and objectives, what we need to do in order to move the society forwards and truly modernise it, we concluded very early on that the model we have lived with for the last 4 years is not sustainable and needed to be changed.

90% of members of Council and Executive are busy fee earners with very demanding chargeable hours and business development targets and in most cases have young families. The prospect of joining Council or Executive let along stepping up the one of the officer roles is daunting and if we are honest has not been attractive as people fail to see how they can balance a busy and demanding career, family life and Bristol Law Society.  Executive has been determined to see this change. We need to make Council, Executive and the officer role achievable, attractive and manageable for people. It should be a pleasure and not a difficult balancing act.

I personally was promoted to partner at TLT in May 2013 and my second son arrived in December 2013 so I have first hand experience of balancing Bristol Law Society with life. Changing the structure and model of Bristol Law Society has therefore been a personal crusade for me. I was determined to ensure that those who follow have a far more balanced experience than I and the two presidents before me had.

I am pleased to tell you that Helen Read as well as heading up our Recruitment and Careers Service has stepped up to become our Business Development Manager during the course of this year. Helen therefore manages the day to day business of Bristol Law Society and is responsible for delivering the strategy set by Executive and approved by Council. This will take the pressure off Council and Executive in terms of delivery and we can all feel comfortable that the business will continue despite fee earning and other priorities getting in the way.

I am pleased to confirm that we have 7 new members of Council joining us this evening and all of them actually asked to join. Our new vice president Melissa Conway is currently on maternity leave and will return in the summer 2015 to resume her duties. Looking at the new executive there could well be two female presidents in succession from 2016.

Finally we have recently recruited Clair Ponting as our new administrator. Clair comes to Bristol Law Society with a wealth of experience in the legal sector both as a PA in major law firms, organising events and being Honorary Secretary of her rowing club. We are really exited about the skills and attributes Clair brings to the role and we are convinced it will help the society move forwards to the next stage of its development.

11. Events

We have held a record number of events this year – over 25. Ultimately we are measured on the quality of our events and this is where we come face to face with members, sponsors and other professionals. Sometimes the only time a member will experience Bristol Law Society is by attending one of our events. On top of the Linked In, private client, property and litigation conferences mentioned above we have hosted or co-hosted the following events:

·     Sponsors party

·     Certainty the national will register

·     International Women's Day tea and tiffin

·     Managing partners dinner (guest speaker Des Hudson former chief executive of the national law society)

·     HR directors dinner (guest speaker Julie Ashdown head of equality and diversity of the national law society)

·     Q&A session with Stephen Williams MP

·     EU election hustings

·     Annual quiz

·     In House Lawyers seminar

·     Proposed changes to Professional Indemnity Insurance hosted by John Verry (Director of Risk & Compliance at TLT LLP and committee member on risk and compliance committee at the national law society)

·     Finance directors dinner (guest speaker Richard Burcher on the subject of pricing)

·     Women in the Judiciary

·     Pre-sentence restorative justice pathfinder

·     Summer party

·     Bath legal quiz

·     South West legal support trust – legal walk

·     Music quiz

·     Great War commemoration (attended by Lord Lieutenant, Lord Mayor, High Sheriff)

·     NQ event (His Honour Judge Michael Roach presiding)

·     Legal Sunday/ opening of the legal year

·     Annual awards dinner hosted by Joshua Rozenberg (370 attendees)

All of these events were excellent and I am grateful to the support of Council, Executive, sponsors, members, our hosts and guest speakers for ensuring we could host a programme of fantastic and memorable occasions. The highlights of the year for me personally were the Great War Commemoration and the Annual Awards Dinner.

12. Charities of the Year

Our charities of the year were Bristol Underprivileged Children's Charity and Lord Mayor of Bristol's Children Appeal. We have raised funds for both charities during the year and the total amount raised should be in the region of £4,000 which is a fantastic result for these essential charities.

13. The future and the challenges ahead

A number of issues and items are on the horizon and need to be addressed over the coming years. Some of the discussions and decisions will not be easy and we may not all agree with the outcome but we must always remember that the best interests of Bristol Law Society and safeguarding its future are the overriding considerations. We must not be afraid to make bold decisions.

13.1 Premises

We need to consider whether we need to retain such large premises in order to function and offer best value to our members. Linked to this is our continued maintenance of the law library.

13.2 Succession

We must ensure that we continue to attract new members to join Council and that we ensure that being on Executive and taking on an officer role is attractive and manageable.

13.3 Training

The changes to CPD will present a challenge to all training providers and we must adapt to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of members.

13.4 Sponsorship and income

We need to think outside the box in terms of winning new sponsors and maintaining existing relationships. We need to consider alternative means of generating income for the society.

13.5 Membership

We need to attract or re-connect with sole practitioners, medium tosmall firms, in house lawyers and those practicing in the areas around Bristol to ensure that we are truly representative of the whole legal sector in this region. We also need to ensure that the large firms remain engaged and see Bristol Law Society as relevant to them.

13.6 Financial management

The current level of financial scrutiny and management must continue and we must not be afraid to make decisions to safeguard the future of this society.

13.7     Governance

Is it sustainable that the only members of Council with full voting rights are solicitors. Whilst we have representatives on Council from a wide range of groups, sectors, firms, chambers and organisations if we are to truly reflect what is happening to the legal sector in the UK generally should we be prepared to accept that one day the President of Bristol Law Society will be a Chartered Legal Executive, an HR director or a Barrister? Perhaps that would be a step to far but some analysis of the way we are governed will be required over the coming years. Perhaps Bristol Law Society should introduce a board of directors which would take people from a wide range of organisations and disciplines to deal with this concern?

14.     Conclusion

This year has built on the success enjoyed over the last 2 years and it provides a solid foundation for next year and beyond. Bristol Law Society is back as a modern, vibrant, active, engaged, relevant and well run membership organisation. The effort to get us to this point has been considerable and should not be underestimated or wasted. We are diverse and truly represent the Bristol legal sector. Our Council and Executive care about this city, law and Bristol Law Society. We share a vision and passion.

Finally I wanted to thank this year's Council and Executive for their contribution and commitment to the cause. I would like to make special mention of Ashley Palminteri immediate past president who will now deservedly take a year off day to day involvement with the business of Bristol Law Society and I would like to thank Leon Smith our retiring Honorary Secretary for his endless commitment enthusiasm and good humour over the last 5 or so years both as a Council member and as our Honorary Secretary. Both will be missed and hard acts to follow. I would also like to thank Michael Gupwell my vice president, Helen Read and John Moriarty for their support and presence during the year.

Thank you for the opportunity to have been your president. It has been an honour. The experience has been fascinating and enriching and will stay with me forever. The future of Bristol Law Society is in good hands and we should be confident. I wish you all the very best for the future.