I opened my “high-street” direct access practice two years ago after a fall-out with my chambers over promoting the service. I was asked to consider my position, which I did, and decided to leave chambers.
Starting from scratch, the business has been very organic and shaped by the expectations of my clients. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all that I have learned since starting to practise in this way is that the client largely expects you to be able to do the same job as a solicitor – but better.
Fortunately, my background as a solicitor has helped. What this has enabled me to do is to see where the weak points are in terms of the ability of the average barrister to deal with a direct access client – accurate record keeping and dealing with client files, rather than just handing the papers back to the solicitor, to name just a couple of examples. I am not sure that the direct access courses around at the moment sufficiently cover the direct access litigation process and this may need addressing by the various providers if the Bar is to fully embrace the opportunity.
There are many advertisements encouraging barristers to join one web-based direct access service or another. But I would argue that if it is expected that the only way you will win work is by joining a web-based site, where the client has no real access to you, then direct access will remain in the shadows. This is not the bulk of direct access work available. Clients want a full service and yes, you will have to do more of the things that a solicitor does in terms of client handling and talking money, but I am now at the stage where I am turning work away and need further to recruit.
I run my business with a group of barristers, with administrative and paralegal staff as support for the litigation side. The lucrative litigation work (family and civil) now makes up 80% of my business. The opportunities for like-minded barristers to grow this type of business, and to offer every town and city a real alternative legal service, are enormous. Franchising/licensing will be the next step for Barristers & Co.
We are also currently working on an offering to chambers by way of litigation support for their direct access clients. We would appreciate any input from clerks to discuss how this might best work.
I have heard of solicitors’ firms who have threatened to withdraw all instructions, right across chambers, if they found out that anyone was accepting direct access instructions. Unfortunately, too many see it as biting the hand that feeds you. What the answer to that is I don’t know for those chambers, because barristers, largely, will not make the stand. We exist in an unusual state of self-employment where we work together, in competition with each other.
Some of the larger sets, who have ventured into the corporate world of CEOs and NEDs, have more and more excellent mouths to
feed without changing the way they do business. It will very soon not be enough to be excellent at banging your head against the same brick wall and there may well be some large implosions before too long.
I am a great champion of tradition and believe that the independent Bar, and all it stands for, is one of the jewels in the British constitution. The wig and gown are synonymous with independence, justice and fearless representation. We should not lose this.
But the Bar is battered and bruised by the fee cuts and the Higher Rights of Audience now being exercised by many solicitors. That is apparently OK, say some solicitors, whilst direct access, however, is not.
The reality is that if a barrister already has a very busy practice he/she will not be interested in this article. The bulk of direct access work, in my experience, is a full litigation service. Barristers & Co does get calls just to attend at a hearing and increasingly solicitors are sending their clients to find their own direct access barrister. But direct access is so much more.
This is the future of legal services in my opinion, whether that be entirely barrister-led offerings or the ‘F’ word… fusion. I now have several firms of solicitors with whom I work closely. We share the clients, each having different parts of the case. More solicitors will accept this in time and it will bring new ways of doing business.
The Bar must fight, it must not be found at the end of its days limping along on the tail coats of a legal services world that no longer exists. It is a terrible shame that those halcyon days have gone but we have to move forward. The senior Bar, who have seen those better times, can be more resistant and reluctant to accept change but we are facing the reality that there may be no junior Bar if new ways are not found.
I believe that the BPTC providers should now be offering extra training to prospective pupils in the rules of direct access, litigation and how to offer a direct access service and I am making representations to both the Bar Standards Board and teaching providers in this regard. We must never lose the excellence and the experience of the Bar and the incomparable training and support gained in chambers, but there needs to be an element of re-structuring and re-training in order to accomplish a Bar fit for the brave new legal services world.
The Bar is its own best USP and has the best ready-made brand which is recognised worldwide. Let’s use it…
Contributor Amanda de Winter, Barristers & Co