You are the first CEO at Zenith Chambers and also the first in Yorkshire, what attracted you to the role?
I think there are a couple of distinct issues here. Firstly, there is Zenith itself. Zenith is one of the largest chambers on circuit with some 70 members and associates including two criminal QCs, a family QC and a leading tax QC. The practice groups are strong, particularly crime, family, housing and personal injury. The foundations of a strong chancery, commercial and property set are in place and the temptation, as a former commercial litigator, to build on this was overwhelming! The chambers has an excellent reputation on the NE Circuit and beyond and I thought their ambitions and goals were exciting and achievable. A good time to join! Secondly, the role was more than practice director. I succeeded an excellent practice director who had grown up through the clerking side of chambers but the Management Committee pulled all aspects of chambers into the new role and gave me a lot of autonomy to just get on with it – let me manage and direct thereby enabling the barristers to get on with legal practice. I have been delighted by the level of trust and confidence they have given me from which I believe we will all benefit. If pushed for a third reason, I’m free of 25 years of time sheets, the chore for all practising solicitors!
You were Managing Partner at Shakespeares in Birmingham for five years, how has this equipped you for the culture at the Bar?
Yes, I was the firm’s first elected full time Managing Partner at 37. The culture of a major commercial solicitors’ firm is very different from chambers but at the end of the day the role is handling people and that is no different. Both the firm and chambers operate within the same profession, of course, and learning to push through cultural reforms, modern practices and practice development techniques in Birmingham are all experiences I can utilise at Zenith to differing degrees. It is this past experience which has given me the central core of confidence that I can do this current role, and do it well. I think the members here are respectful of this experience and there is a real will to move forward and take on board the sort of successful methods and systems that are now well embedded into solicitors’ practices. Marketing and cross-selling are relatively new concepts to many but they are being enthusiastically embraced – after all, they have to be in this modern world!
The criminal Bar has taken a great deal of negative pressure from the last government with a number of practitioners at all levels feeling the squeeze, what have been some of the issues at your chambers you’ve been trying to address?
I would suggest this negative pressure will also come from the Coalition Government – there are no votes in lawyers other than for battering them. There are obvious concerns about the falling rates, the revision of contracts and the challenges of recruitment, but these can be addressed with the aid of good clerking, good planning, good systems, good co-operation between members and the provision of a service of excellence. We find ourselves in a position where we have more than enough work and are presently recruiting and, if managed well, I believe the Bar generally can handle these negative issues.
What are your thoughts on legal services reform, in particular ProcureCos versus furthering direct access clients?
I think the slow and, if I may say, late, removal of the chains from barristers by the Bar Council has produced exciting opportunities. I am interested in the ProcureCo concept which to some degree presents all chambers with a relatively risk free expansion policy which rather turns the high investment into annexes and new buildings as an outdated and unnecessarily expensive growth policy. Direct access is with us and will be a growth area too, although I believe from wide discussion that most barristers are shying away from turning chambers into a solicitors’ office.
Where would you like to see Zenith Chambers in five years time?
Now there’s an interesting question! All our practice groups and sub groups are in the process of writing their business plans for this year and I am involved with each one. The updated chambers’ business plan will flow from this so in a sense I’m second guessing at this stage. However, in five years time I see chambers as the significant player on the North East Circuit through its various means of practice delivery. I see it dramatically larger with an enviable reputation but still retaining the excellent team spirit that exists now. And yes, I would still like to be at the helm! Some will see this as a worrying time – I see it as a time of great opportunity for the future of our chambers but you have to look for it, think outside the box and have the courage to go for it taking chambers with you.
Andrew Argyle was interviewed by Guy Hewetson, LPA Legal