You are head of one of the UK’s leading multi-disciplinary sets of chambers, and are described as one of the country’s pre-eminent catastrophic injury lawyers. To what do you credit your success?
Doing what I love; a fantastic job as a barrister, and the opportunity to use my business skills, leading to a great business team running successful Chambers.
When I took Silk, I was told that I would have to do all types of work: criminal, personal injury, commercial, family, and anything else that came along. I had already decided that I wanted to specialise in catastrophic claimant’s brain and spine injuries, and that’s what I did. I travelled the entire UK seeing claimants in their homes, and I made sure that I only did one case a day; no rush, no confusion, and the ability to read all the papers before the consultation. I got my son to create a website for me, and gradually used it to record cases, lectures and articles. Because I wrote a lot of articles about catastrophic injury topics, David Kemp invited me to become the Consultant Editor of Kemp, and I found it a great privilege to know him, and to learn from him.
I have always enjoyed being a progressive litigator; I was at the forefront of changing the multiplier discount rate, and my current interest is in changing the way we do major personal injury litigation, cutting out the courts completely; I described a system that would work (neutral facilitation) in JPIL a while ago.
What are the ingredients of a modern, progressive chambers?
Progressive, imaginative and business-minded leadership, in whom members and staff can have real confidence. I was lucky that our Chambers Director, Tom Handley, joined us 23 years ago, head-hunted by us from KPMG; he has been my great friend and business ally ever since. We see eye to eye on all issues, and we try to blend boldness with caution. We have been very fortunate (we think!) that we have been managing Chambers together for over 20 years; we believe in continuity.
We have embraced the idea that we are a business providing professional services; that combines the best of both worlds, in my opinion. It goes back to my kite mark for efficient management, and I couldn’t have done that if Tom hadn’t been enthusiastic; we both learnt a lot from the process (which was very expensive and time-consuming, but which has benefited Chambers enormously).
We have always realised that we would have to expand to survive, and we have grown from about 30 barristers to about 160 in the last 20 years. We are still recruiting, trying to select only those who are, or will be with our help, outstanding.
We have always tried to create and maintain high values and standards; that is the history of our Chambers, and it is integral to everything we do.
We have state of the art accommodation in all three cities, each offering a range of opportunities for barristers to choose how they want to work, and how much “rent” they choose to pay – ranging from hot-desking, at a very reduced rate, to large rooms for single occupancy.
We believe strongly in career development – we pride ourselves on being able to offer opportunities to new tenants which will allow them to increase earnings and job satisfaction, with the real prospect of Silk and/or the Bench. We carry out regular appraisals to help people achieve.
We have maintained our overheads at about 12% for many years, despite significant expansion and upgrading.
Exchange Chambers has over 160 members across Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. What are the future plans for the set?
We are about to concentrate on a targeted and focused proactive recruitment policy, deciding which cities, which areas of work and what seniority we want to strengthen.
We have been considering for a few years whether a London presence would improve our national profile and brand, and we have had (and are open to) specific discussions.
We are always creating and developing different areas of work; for example, we trained about 30 of our barristers as mediators eight years ago, which should be useful if my system of neutral facilitation gains traction.
In such a competitive market how are you ensuring your set stays ahead of the curve? Does your chambers pitch for work? Do members “hunt in packs”?
We believe very strongly that the best way to create a sound business is to develop and maintain relationships with solicitors and clients. Working with and for people you like and trust is half the battle in the fight to provide a top quality professional service. That creates a strong brand.
We are always considering the wider issue of what barristers do – what is our “product” which we are selling. For many of us, court work has taken a back seat, and consultation and advice is far more important. We do that in relation to all practice areas.
Where are you seeing areas of growth for work coming from?
Expanding further away from the narrow area of court work, and considering all the aspects of daily life where an advocate can help.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Do as I’ve done. Find a job which you love, where you can help people, and which gives you maximum satisfaction and fun.
What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
Do what you love.
How do you like to spend time away from chambers?
Being in the countryside with my wife, drinking wine and racing historic cars.
Bill Braithwaite QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP