In reality, you need two things (at least) to create a sustainable business: firstly, entrepreneurial thinking – the ability to spot opportunities and vision and the character to take advantage of them; and then engagement – both internally and externally, to capture the imagination of your marketplace. Too often, the pressure to be “innovative” is the starting point, rather than recognising that you need to address the requirements of your marketplace and plan from there.

Pandora’s box, I believe, is finally open and has released the concept of public access to the marketplace. The corporate world (including “marketing partners” – anyone who can introduce or generate a case) and increasingly savvy consumers are aware that they can save money and time and are confident in working directly with barristers on their case. Public access, especially in the B2B world, is now a valid alternative to accessing legal support and can provide a wealth of opportunities.

What is preventing public access from taking off is that many chambers do not want to run the risk of “upsetting” instructing solicitors. This is a very black and white interpretation of the opportunities from public access. Unless there is a fundamental business model and investment in the process to build something that customers want, can use easily and can trust, then public access is only ever going to be a side-line business and benefit individual barristers (thus upsetting solicitors).

We launched Clerksroom Direct in January 2015 as a direct result of enquiries from our corporate contacts (with whom we have always tendered for advocacy work). We knew the work was there and, thanks to our commercial business structure and 15 years of lessons learned, we assessed whether we could fit the bill, devised a solution and then invested significantly into creating a bespoke and now award-winning platform to process the work, service the clients and generate the marketing support to achieve it. We have never viewed public access as an additional income stream for barristers, but as a means to meet and enhance the needs of the emerging consumer and corporate market – one that is available to us as well as solicitors.

We could have fallen foul of traditional accusations by solicitors of “biting the hand that feeds us”. Yes, solicitors should be nervous. Over the last 12 months, a rising tide of marketing partners and customers have approached us (even we have been surprised). They do so because they are looking for a new way to access legal services and come from places you wouldn’t expect – including what were claims management companies.

Our use of technology to build an online instruction and case management portal for clients (a bespoke creation that was created as a means to an end – innovation wasn’t the driver here, delivery was) offers accessibility to legal services which will rival many law firms. On paper, this could fuel the flames of claims that we are in competition with solicitors. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Our experience is that the type of customer seeking our service was looking for an alternative. We haven’t had to sell it to them. That is what solicitors need to understand. In fact, those that do understand have done very well with us. For example, we have instructed top 100 commercial law firm Jeffrey Green Russell with £50,000 of work over the last 12 months. As Nigel Frost, Director of the firm says: “Times are changing and whilst I see many solicitors complaining, I look for new opportunities where others see defeat.”

While some chambers have professed “innovation” in public access, they haven’t been able to forge ahead as, crucially, they either haven’t invested in creating a service that meets the needs of the marketplace or haven’t been bold enough to collaborate. Collaboration isn’t something the Bar is historically good at. It is working for many law firms and ABSs but the Bar is very territorial. However, we’ve managed to attract 130 chambers into our network, offering public access clients the choice of over 1000 experienced barristers – the largest barrister network in the UK. We charge the client for a quality service and because it has been designed around them, they have total faith in our service and we are generating repeat instructions that would be the envy of many a law firm.

Ultimately, barristers are the product but not the only tool we use to meet customers’ needs; we are able to satisfy our long-term instructing solicitors and also work closely with marketing partners who help to feed in more work. We also cherry pick our collaborators and advisers, ensuring we gain the trust of, and work with, leading minds in technology, marketing and legal expertise. I don’t think that’s innovation; that’s what any entrepreneur would do to ensure a successful and sustainable business and we need more of it at the Bar.

Contributor Stephen Ward, Managing Director, Clerksroom & Clerksroom Direct