Is now the time for one member, one vote policy?

SOLICITORS reading the latest edition of the Law Society of Scotland's Journal could be forgiven for thinking that John MacKinnon, their newly departed president, had been feeling the pressure of the post. In what turned out to be his last column as president, his parting shot expressed his hope that solicitors should be taking their holidays.

"At the time of writing, the weather remains as fickle as might be expected from a Scottish summer," he wrote. "That being so, I hope everyone is able to take a well-earned break and recharge their batteries for the months ahead."

By the time the Journal dropped through letterboxes last week, MacKinnon had already stepped down, just three months into the job. Last Monday, it was announced he was resigning from the society's council, citing the pressure of work at Brown and McRae, his small Fraserburgh-based firm.

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MacKinnon's sudden resignation has seen Richard Henderson, vice-president, who was next in line to take over as president, pick up the baton nine months early. At a council meeting last Friday, it was agreed Henderson will continue in that role until May 2009, while an election for a new vice-president will be held in October.

There is no question of the handover causing the running of the society to grind to a halt. But does it raise issues about its leadership? Has the role of president become too pressurised, particularly for solicitors from small, rural firms? And should it the wider membership of the society have a direct say in choosing who represents their interests?

According to the society, the president's role is to act as a "figurehead". In practice, however, the president has a wide range of duties - he or she is not only expected to chair council and general meetings, but also to work closely with the chief executive to agree objectives and priorities, help identify policy and strategic issues, and play a major role in communicating with the wider public, other professional bodies and politicians.

Before taking over as president in May, MacKinnon had served as vice-president for a year - - but that role is far less onerous.

Most, but not all, presidents have come from larger firms, arguably with more resources to cope with effectively losing a partner for a year, and usually based in or around Edinburgh. However, Caroline Flanagan, who took over as president in 2005, also came from a five-partner firm, albeit one based in Dunfermline.

Ironically, it is the survival of firms such as MacKinnon's, particularly in more remote areas like Fraserburgh, that will be key to the ongoing debate about the advent of alternative business structures and their impact on access to justice.

Simple geography may be one major reason why Henderson had already been playing a greater than usual supporting role. Indeed, some senior figures in the profession had already been mistakenly referring to him as the "president" of the society before MacKinnon's resignation.

It may also be a sign that the process of electing the president does not involve solicitors at a grassroots level. Currently the president and vice-president are elected by the society's council, made up of 44 solicitors who have been elected to represent geographical "constituencies" and up to nine co-opted members, who are in-house lawyers.

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The nominations and elections are usually held in November, with the results ratified in December and the new president and vice-president taking over in May each year. The vice-president goes on to become president and, according to latest figures from the society, the president is paid 80,000 a year, while the vice-president receives 40,000.

But one solicitor tells The Scotsman this process is undemocratic, particularly as Henderson, a retired solicitor to the Scottish Executive, is a co-opted, not elected, member.

"Scottish solicitors - 10,000 of us - were not consulted or given a vote," he says. "Solicitors can vote for the appointment of a local solicitor to the council of the society but the choice of president and vice-president - who always takes over the following year - is dealt with behind closed doors. According to the Journal he was co-opted on to the council, which suggests he has even less of a mandate. What about one member, one vote?"

Any changes to the election process would require reform of the society's constitution. The Scotsman understands the issue was last considered in the late 1980s. Douglas Connell, managing partner at Turcan Connell, says: "I have some sympathy with the idea that the governing body should select the person who is best suited to lead the profession. Given everything that has been happening and all the changes we have seen, I think it is time for a much more radical review of the role of the Law Society of Scotland and its governance."

A society spokeswoman says: "The council has looked at the profession nominating a president and agreed that council members should continue to nominate the president and vice-president each year as the profession could feed into that process and express their views to their representative on council. If there is a view that the issue should be looked at again, then a motion can be raised by individual members, at the society's annual general meeting or special general meeting in September, or through their elected representative on council."