21st century chambers management

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Is the chambers model fit for the 21st century? Robin Jackson reviews The Independent Bar, a book offering a best practice blueprint for how a set of chambers works – or should work – in today’s competitive legal world


David Barnes, as consulting editor, has put together a tremendous cast of well-known and respected contributors to this fine, if expensive, book on chambers management and ‘insights into a unique business model’, as the book is subtitled. Barnes recently moved to Atkin Chambers as chief executive after his exceptionally successful years developing 39 Essex into the global brand it is today.

The preface, written by Chantal-Aimée Dorries QC, former Chair of the Bar and now head of chambers at Atkin, claims this book shows the ‘chambers’ model... very much meets the demands of the 21st century’. The fact that the Bar needs a book like this to explain what are in some cases straightforward business management issues (eg ‘Strategy and why it is important’), suggests the profession is a little way off being entirely comfortably positioned in the 2010s. But if this book can help that progression, it fully justifies its publication.

The contributors are gathered as ‘real experts’ with ‘significant experience of grappling with and solving the challenges posed by chambers’. Their considerable experience, in many cases gained over decades of working in chambers, undoubtedly lends great weight and substance to this book. I would also have liked to have seen input from some relative newcomers who bring exceptional recent experience of business management from outside this sector; this is surely an essential source of new skills and knowledge to ensure that all chambers remain aware of emerging management practice – otherwise we face the risk of being seen as rather isolationist.

For me, the most vibrant writing can be found in ‘Marketing and branding’, the chapter by Matrix’s Natalie Hearn, Rachel Murray and Lindsay Scott. (Lindsay, the Legal 500 chambers’ chief exec of 2016, has recently replaced David Barnes as CEO of 39 Essex.) Here is an excellent ‘how-to’ summary of promoting chambers, emphasising the importance nowadays not only of a strong brand (described elsewhere in the book as ‘simply a wrapper’ – surely not?) but also properly resourcing this ‘with time, effort and money’. It is no surprise that Matrix is one of the most prominent legal services brands; a set that has, since its creation, funded its development concepts and challenged boundaries – sometimes controversially and with risk, but seemingly without fear. In the section on the unique elements of a brand, I love the allusion to the branding challenges facing ‘1, 2, 4, 7, 11 and 12 KBW, and also just KBW’. For an excellent and succinct explanation of the place of marketing and branding in a modern set, read the chapter’s concluding paragraph.

You can also sense the depth of understanding and feeling in Felicity Schneider’s chapter, ‘Technology @ the Bar’. Littleton’s administration director claims to be ‘no legal technologist’, but she is surely one of the most knowledgeable managers regarding the current practical potential for technology as an enabler across chambers. She describes how technology is moving on from being seen as simply an enhanced ‘back-office resource’ to providing barristers ‘with quick and accurate diagnostics of the relevant data’ through to having the potential, with truly cognitive systems, to become in time ‘accepted as trusted partners working closely in tandem alongside the legal professionals of tomorrow’. She stops short of actually replacing the practitioners or the judges, but perhaps let’s wait for the next edition of this book. Worryingly, though, she draws attention to the general lack of significant investment by chambers in IT, which tends to be focused on the present rather than the future, and for the cheapest cost. The oft-quoted and lauded ‘lean model’ of barristers’ chambers might just be, to some extent, a result of lack of investment in its future compared to other professional services businesses. (Although Bar Squared is featured in this chapter, readers should note that other case-management software providers are available!)

Nick Rees, founder and MD of consultancy firm GRL Legal LLP, is one of the two non-chambers’ management writers and tackles ‘Recruitment and talent management’. In a wide-ranging treatise, he talks about the ‘too static, outdated and less than versatile’ constitutions of many chambers that have acted as impediments to change, and credits the introduction of more professional structures and decision-making process to the arrival of ‘professionals… in managerial and business development roles’. He cites the noticeable increase in the number of ‘lateral hires’ of barristers by chambers, a term now in common use in chambers but one that would have been frowned upon just a few years ago. Like many people at or involved with the Bar, he talks about ‘intense senses of loyalty’ of barristers to their set and the individual challenges this can raise when considering a move. In my view this is overplayed. Anyone can be loyal to a set when practice is good and you’re not being asked to contribute more than you think is reasonable. If any of that changes, most self-employed practitioners will look for a solution elsewhere and that is entirely understandable.

Continuing the thread from other chapters, Nick highlights the importance of ‘brand association’ in attracting staff and barrister recruits at all levels and, critically, of retaining them. He also mentions the growing focus on training, mentoring and coaching in chambers. A recent IBC/LPMA survey on staff training revealed the sorry state of provision for training time and budget. Although there is evidence that this is being better addressed, it is still more ad hoc than planned – another drain on chambers’ ‘lean overheads’, but undoubtedly a good, long-term investment. Barristers themselves are more readily recognising that training or coaching is not just for those who are failing (a wholly negative but quite prominent view amongst some) and noticing the substantial number of very successful professionals in other sectors who benefit from coaching. This really is a move into the new century, if still a relatively slow one.

The chapter on ‘Barristers’ finance’ from Howard Sears of Price Bailey LLP provides a useful introduction to many of the financial issues facing barristers and touches on the topic of financial reserves for chambers. This latter is a growing topic of discussion – it doesn’t make sense that multi-million-pound businesses often don’t have any meaningful financial reserves or appropriate financial management staff. What the chapter neglects is the real problem of cash-flow for new tenants and how to deal with this. A side note: I’m not sure that the Public Access rules were specifically ‘designed to create new ways of capturing clients’, though many solicitors might think so.

Chris Broom, of Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers, writes the chapter on ‘Pro Bono/CSR’ and entertainingly charts the journey of pro bono work from something that individual barristers did occasionally as charity to a far more organised and chambers-backed arrangement. Chris provides the most alluring metaphor in the whole book for a barrister’s practice – that of a sweet shop, and the need to plan from the outset to out-sell the shop down the street. He also provides a good list of pro bono schemes and organisations, but the chapter does not describe the part CSR can now play in chambers’ strategy and brand development, and the potential for links with key clients and greater business development. Broader social responsibility schemes, such as ethical policies, payment of the London Living Wage or recycling procedures are three such areas, all of which are relevant to sets who want to be better organisations in society or, more commercially, tender for some types of contract.

David Barnes’s own chapter, ‘Women in law’, reinforces how underrepresented women are at the higher levels of the Bar, the judiciary and in chambers. He notes that in the early 1990s, there were only two female senior clerks. What he does not say is that one of these was recruited as senior clerk at the newly founded Doughty Street Chambers because the rest of the established clerking world refused to countenance working for a set that was a) setting itself up outside the Inns of Courts and b) also appointing a chief executive to run it (Christine Kings, who writes a chapter in this book). Both women were courageous in taking these roles in the face of vitriolic opposition.

David poses some interesting challenges to stereotypes, questioning the value of just women-only networks, and asking how a pupillage interview panel would react to a man raising flexible-working time constraints as a potential tenant to cope with his family-caring responsibilities. You would hope there wouldn’t be an issue, but there remains a nagging doubt. He also raises the ever-present issues of accessibility and availability, and the modern-day reality that work is no longer governed by ‘the office’ or by ‘normal office hours’. This potential 24/7 availability presents benefits as well as problems. Ultimately, barristers provide a service to clients. If clients want an ‘always-on-tap, drive-thru service’, they probably have the right to seek it, and the increasing competition for work and the demands on junior barristers both from clients and, perhaps, from their leading counsel makes this in every regard a buyer’s market. David does not portray it in quite such stark terms, and points towards several ways in which the Bar should be moving to improve the situation – thus ending on an upbeat note, in what I found to be the most intellectually interesting section of the book. (I’m not sure, though, that I share his optimism.) The advances in promoting equality for employees (and partners) in companies are much more difficult to provide in groups of self-employed practitioners (ie chambers) and the number of women barristers taking up middle- and lower-ranking judicial appointments may simply be a recognition that a steady and predictable (if ultimately less satisfying) workload is better than the wild uncertainty of trying to manage a family and a career at the self-employed Bar. This is a real and unanswered problem.

The aforementioned Christine Kings (now running the show at Outer Temple Chambers and one of the founders of the LPMA) wrote the chapter on ‘Compliance and risk management’. The subject can be a little dry, but Christine is one of the most qualified in the sector to talk about it and any barrister or manager dealing with chambers’ management should absorb every word. It gives an excellent general guide to the needs and purpose of compliance, how wise it is to seek timely legal and PR advice, to train people appropriately and to fund all compliance activities properly. It provides a basic introduction to risk analysis, an essential component of business management that most chambers will not have conducted, and it even touches on the subject of discipline and suspension or expulsion from chambers of a barrister.

Christine mentions the ‘compliance officer’, which raises the general subject of the staffing of chambers. Every chapter of this book refers in some way to the branding, marketing, and development of chambers and its financial management and manifold compliance obligations. The days when these tasks could just be absorbed within the existing staff complement are long over. (‘Can we find a junior clerk to do this?’) The more complex functions of chambers’ management and promotion does mean that staff numbers increase. Whilst some might see this as a ‘mushrooming’ of staff, it should be recognised that some chambers might not have previously been run on lines of ‘best practice’ or even in full compliance with all legislation and regulation. It is also ultimately far more efficient to pay an experienced member of staff to carry out most management tasks than to have a member of chambers do it.

She aptly sums up the compliance conundrum for chambers: ‘It is all too easy to compartmentalise risk and put nominal policies in place only for some key aspects of chambers’ business; this may ensure, for instance, that the organisation complies with regulatory requirements on paper but it is not a proper assessment of the risk that a chambers may be running.’

Without doubt, the shining light around the Bar over the last year has to be the emergence of proper respect for ‘Wellbeing at the Bar’. The work of Rachel Spearing (Serjeants’ Inn Chambers), Sam Mercer (The Bar Council) and Nick Hill (3 New Square and Chair of the IBC) in developing and promoting this initiative over the last four years has been inspirational. Everyone should read Nick’s chapter in this book and then take a long stare in the mirror. Are you doing the best for your own wellbeing? And despite all the best words and intentions, are you doing the best for the wellbeing of those around you? As with the ‘Women in law’ chapter, there are some challenging questions. Whilst the subject might now be more spoken about, are those who are suffering speaking more openly, and how do the rest of us react? Nick provides the clear business case for wellbeing support – look at the investment you would be throwing away – but I think there are also thornier questions to address: how to convince the QC to have as a junior again the barrister who had wellbeing issues the last time they worked together; and how, if a clerk has 25 individual barristers to manage, how does s/he ever get away from the high-pressure end of the graph and avoid hitting the crisis area? So, this is probably the most worrying chapter in the book, but it is encouraging that this subject seems to be gaining serious traction.

I am always intrigued why ‘practice management’ and ‘business development’ (BD), and, indeed ‘marketing and branding’ are often addressed in chambers as separate issues, to be put into their own stove-pipes. Admittedly, if you ask ten BD execs what BD means, you’ll get at least 15 definitions, but, as a general concept, it is helpful to see BD as aiming to create long-term value from the market you’re operating in, the clients you have or might want to have, and your relationships with the other stakeholders and opinion-formers in the market. Hence, BD for a set of chambers encompasses all of what we might consider (individual) practice management, marketing (and its sub-sets), branding, customer relationship management (CRM) and business communications (or PR). So, fundamentally, it’s not helpful to compartmentalise these business functions.

Paul Martenstyn’s and Alex Taylor’s (of Fountain Court Chambers) chapter on ‘Practice management and business development’ covers as best it can in nine pages this enormous subject, but it is inevitably ‘big hand, small map’. It swings from statements such as ‘a chambers’ core brand is important’ to the minutiae of ‘contacting a client ahead of an event and suggesting a drink afterwards’. There’s also a bit of protecting the role of the clerk against the newcomers in CEO, BD and client-care roles: ‘the clerks are the people who have the day-to-day contact with members and clients... and they are consequently the best equipped to maintain and develop these relationships’ and ‘the clerking team has retained its position as the “sales team”’. Of course, many businesses might not regard their sales team as the best one to lead on developing the strategic client relationships. Something for more in-depth discussion.

Their chapter highlights two notable issues: first, the essential fact that a barrister’s clients are chambers’ clients – there is no ‘unique ownership’ in a chambers framework, as some might try to claim; and, second, that effective practice development nowadays increasingly demands what they call ‘affability’ – if you cannot establish a relationship with your client, you’re unlikely to get any repeat work.

If there is today a ‘father of clerking’, it is David Grief of Essex Court. Sitting down to read an essay by him, you know you’re going to get well-reasoned and erudite stuff, bound up by vast experience that suggests that whatever new idea you may have, he’s probably already tried it. If you want a précis of practice development principles, international or otherwise, just read the paragraph at the top of page 53: 14 lines of text that will help anyone plan their practice. He provides some valuable insights into the development of an international practice but gives the warnings that many seem not to appreciate: ‘it cannot be achieved overnight or as a result of just one or two visits’, it requires acute cultural sensitivity and costs a lot. If you want to develop international work, tear out his ‘Conclusions and top tips’ and paste them on your desk, alongside his practice development principles. And then take a deep breath, cross your fingers and put in the hard work.

Back to the beginning, and ‘Strategy and why it is important’: Wilberforce’s Nick Luckman is recognised as one of the best in guiding the development of strategy for chambers and turning that into positive action. Here, he provides a whistle-stop tour of why you need a strategy, what it might consist of and how you go about defining it. Whilst much of this may seem obvious to those who have managed businesses, there is undoubtedly a need for such a clear and well-structured general explanation as this: after all, many practitioners have not regarded their chambers as a business until quite recently. Nick rightly raises the spectre of failure: ‘Having a strategy matters and is fundamental to the success and sustainability of any chambers. Not having one, particularly in a time of market turbulence, increases the risk of failure.’ No set of chambers has a right to succeed or even survive.

Nick makes a valiant effort to describe ‘leadership’ in four paragraphs, a subject about which whole shelffuls of books have been penned. He touches on key structural issues such as culture within chambers, including ‘talent management’ and ‘the routine way members and staff behave towards each other’. Last year’s Bloomberg Businessweek article on ‘The Exquisitely English… World of London Clerks’ (written for the US market – 22 May 2017) perceived a lingering ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ relationship between barristers and their clerks, that is still sometimes hard to deny. Not long ago, the head of a chambers’ management committee said he preferred ‘master-servant’ to ‘employer-employee’ when describing the relationship with his clerks. There are some very experienced chambers’ staff who are largely dismissive of their barristers. This is a really uncomfortable subject that most try to ignore or deny, but it does need to be faced up to and dealt with.

Nick concludes that ‘you do not have to make the process [of creating a strategy] excessively complex; it is about reflection, analysis, decision-making and action’. Chambers and their management committees must give time for consideration and debate of strategy and, crucially, ‘leveraging resources and managing change’. His final call to action is simple and should be followed: ‘Be the chambers that understands what is going on and makes things happen, not the chambers that looks on wondering what has just happened!’

Does this book succeed? It is without doubt an excellent primer about the business of chambers and does so well within its one-volume constraints. The book does not address, for example, the very real distinctions between the challenges of commercial sets and those in the Legal Aid or public law arenas. It doesn’t tackle the issue of managing talent that has waned. Simply allowing a stagnant practice, that has defied all efforts to have life breathed into it, to wither on the vine is often cruel to the individual and also at best inefficient or at worst damaging to the business of chambers. Chambers need to have procedures in place to manage these situations with both barristers and staff, and be prepared to implement them. Nor does the book tackle the absence of a replacement accreditation standard for BarMark, despite unfortunately frustrated efforts to produce this in recent years; many of those involved in the management of chambers believe that agreed, best-practice guidelines are sorely needed.

So, does the chambers model meet the demands of the 21st century? It’s probably a bit too early to tell. Despite its low (but increasing) overheads and its inherent flexibility, there are still many vulnerabilities in the model that are likely to be tested seriously in the evermore competitive legal services market. Indeed, the model may well work and survive for some in the future, but perhaps not on the scale that it has today. A second edition could usefully ‘challenge the orthodoxies’.

Ms Dorries says the book ‘is a must read for anyone involved in running or managing a barristers’ chambers’. I’d go further; it should also be read by all self-employed barristers to understand how their practice should properly operate within a chambers’ framework. The £125 price-tag is steep and so the important messages will probably not reach all they should – I would have liked to see this book made available online at a far lower cost. However, I hope people buy it and, although you can read it in an afternoon, you should dwell on it a lot longer.

Robin Jackson is the Chambers Director at 3 Verulam Buildings and was the Chief Executive at Doughty Street Chambers, following several years in senior appointments in professional services businesses and the public sector. He is also the Co-Chair of the Legal Practice Management Association and a member of the Bar Representation Committee. The views expressed in this review are, though, entirely his own and not necessarily representative of those of his Chambers or the LPMA.

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Robin Jackson

Robin Jackson is Co-Chair of the LPMA and Chambers Director at 3 Verulam Buildings