A Brief History of the SYS

The Society, established by a number of young solicitors which included John Buckley and Richard Neville, was led by its first Chairman Bruce St. John Blake (a previous auditor of the Solicitor’s Apprentices Debating Society in 1960, who went on to be President of the Law Society in 1976) with the high ideal of making the interests of young solicitors more widely known and working to better their lot.

With this in mind, the initial desire of this committee was to create a ‘trade union’ type of movement, focussed on the younger members of the profession.  It was, we understand from accounts of the time, felt that there was a need for such a representative body as there was some concern over the conditions and remuneration of young solicitors.

While regarded as a trade union at the outset, some members of the profession viewed this as a threat and certain other associations representing solicitors did not appreciate the arrival of another representative body on the horizon, albeit with a distinct purpose.

Notwithstanding this original aim, it was decided at a very early stage and for a variety of reasons not to form a trade union.  Apparently, one of the principal fears of the original promoters was that they would be considered ‘militant’ by their older peers and would be leaving themselves open to victimization or retaliation for challenging the ‘status quo’.  While change was occurring in all spheres of Society in the 1960’s, certain corners of Society would remain slower to change than others.

Instead, the pioneers of the SYS took up the suggestion of a member of one of the Country Bar Associations to host lectures and discussions to keep the profession as a whole, and the younger members in particular, au-fait with the changing legal situation in Ireland and to promote best practice.

Norman Spendlove, one of the founders, was key to the early success of the SYS.  He bought special printing/copying equipment to produce mass copies of the lectures and actually recorded them so that texts could be produced of those lectures where a full script had not been provided.  While he treated it as a business and charged for the papers, they were a vital service and lent an air of authority and credence to the SYS which ensured its success as an educational body.

Interestingly, the initial plan to form a ‘trade union’ has been revisited from time to time over the years and was seriously considered again in the early eighties in light of exceptionally poor standards and pay on offer to young solicitors at the time.  However, in and around the same time, the Law Society established an unelected sub-committee to investigate the situation and, as a result, the need for such a trade union movement was made redundant.  Instead, the SYS took up the role of assisting this new sub-committee of the Law Society with its task and carried out surveys and research to provide the empirical evidence required to underpin the work of this body.

Throughout the 70s and early 80s the Society continued to explore its educative and social function under the guidance of active Chairpersons including Mary Finlay (as she then was) and Michael Carrigan (who went on to be President of the Association Internationale des Jeunes Avocats (“AIJA”) and who continues his youthful connections through his honorary membership of The Young Lawers Division of the American Bar Association).  Together with William Early (SYS Chair in 1980/1981), they were influential in organising the 1982 AIJA Conference in Dublin.

Up until 1997, the SYS did not in fact have a Constitution or any rules or memorandum to govern the day to day running of the Society.  De facto, the Society has developed its own method of administration in election of officers and running the business of the Society.

Of course, one of the advantages of the absence of formal establishment is that it allows the Society to be dynamic and to develop into any area it wishes without being stultified by rules of form.  One of the clearer disadvantages is the fact that the Society has no mandate whatsoever from any person or body and therefore we do not represent a person or body and, contrary to the implicit suggestion in our title, we do not claim to represent young solicitors in any political manner, nor do young solicitors perceive us to be anything other than an educative, collaborative and social outlet.

Although the Society has moved away from political activism, it has proved to be a springboard for election to the Law Society Council for many past Chairpersons and committee members, some of who have gone on to be Presidents of the Law Society, such as Bruce St. John Blake and Maurice Curran, while many others have become Law Society Council Members.  In fact, the current Director General of the Law Society of Ireland, Mr. Ken Murphy, is also a past chair of the Society.

Educational Function

In November 1967, the SYS issued a report criticising various aspects of legal education in Ireland and concluded that something should be done about the education system for the profession. The report recommended that a person intending to become a solicitor’s apprentice should obtain a university degree and that the university education should cover all legal theory. It was also suggested that an advisory law committee be set up to ensure to the satisfaction of the Law Society that a reasonable standard of legal education is maintained by the universities responsible at all stages.

In the same report, it was mooted that the entry standard was too low and that this was one of the reasons why the number of apprentices entering the profession had risen from 28 in 1960 to over 100 in the previous two years. It would be interesting to receive an update from that Committee as to their view now considering that up to 500 trainees have been qualifying into the profession over the last number of years!

The Society has performed a very useful dual function over the years : (i) the educative function of providing lectures and discussion whereby young members of the profession can keep abreast of changes and developments in the law, particularly with new legislation; and (ii) the provision of a social and networking forum which members of the profession both young and old, country and city could mix, get to know one another and thereby generally assist in improving relationships between colleagues.

As alluded to earlier, the initial lectures were all held in Buswells Hotel and proved very successful, with large audiences in attendance, eager to learn. Later, we devote a chapter to the educational endeavours of the Society and in particular to the many lectures delivered across the country over the last four and a half decades or so.

Modern Times

As the Society moved away from the political sphere entirely and its function narrowed to holding bi-annual Conferences and lectures in various locations around the country.  In these economically straitened times, where support from law firms and commercial sponsorship has become harder to obtain, the bi-annual Conference has become an annual Conference, but a number of other events have been organised to ensure that the SYS is on the road quite regularly.  The Constitution of the Society of Young Solicitors Ireland sets as one of its main aims: “To attend at international law Conferences outside the Republic of Ireland” and this participation with other societies and organisations will continue into the future.  The 1990s and early years of the 21st century saw the SYS embrace its function as engaging with young solicitors throughout Europe.

The social outlet which the SYS has provided is undoubtedly something that a representative body would have difficulty replicating and it has been that aspect of the Society which has allowed it broaden its horizons over the years, especially throughout the 1980’s and 90’s. It has to be stated however that some attempts at liaising with representative bodies of other professions domestically and setting up evening discussion with groups like surveyors and accountants did not always produce the desired results.

Since the early years, the Society has (like any other collaborative entity) had some very successful years and some years where, for a variety of reasons, the successes of previous years may not have been equalled.  In many years, success has been measured by different barometers – numbers attending Conferences, events attended by the committee, articles submitted to the Law Society Gazette and so forth.  One of the principal features of the Society however, which remains a constant throughout the years, is its resilience.  If a particular venture fails, another one is taken up to replace it or (due to the ever changing nature of the committee) another group of officers takes up the cudgels and approaches the issue from a different angle.

Nonetheless, the founding committee should feel great pride that with almost 50 years completed, the numbers attending SYS events continue to grow, notwithstanding the prevailing negative economic environment.  In the last few years the Society has also been involved in organising joint events with the Chartered Accountants of Ireland Young Professionals, as well as attending events hosted by the Northern Ireland Young Solicitor’s Association (NIYSA) and the Law Society, as well as being a designated “Co-Operating Entity” for the American Bar Association.

So, from humble singularly focussed and rebellious beginnings in Buswells Hotel, the Society has grown and expanded its horizons, although perhaps in a manner not originally envisaged.  Regardless of where the Society has gone or will go, it owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the vision of the first Chairman Mr. Bruce St. John Blake and the inaugural committee of the Society of Young Solicitors Ireland.