As a practice manager, I am responsible for creating new business opportunities for my barristers, maintaining our existing and longstanding relationships, and trying to keep everyone out of trouble.
I believe that business retention is at least as important as creating new working relationships, yet is easily overlooked. Trying to juggle both is a skill that requires time, trial and error.
Many of my techniques for trying to create new business are based on the same principles I would use to maintain our longstanding relationships. I’ll try, in this article, to focus on each of these areas: exploring what has worked for us over the years and why.
Before I walk into a meeting room or pick up the phone to a solicitor for the first time, I try to think of things that would make someone want to use our team, especially given the likelihood that they are probably used to different barristers. Preparation is key: this is no time to fly by the seat of your pants or just hope ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. I try and look at it from their angle and, as I would expect my barristers to, prepare rigorously.
An intrinsic part of any relationship between chambers and solicitors is flexibility, whether it be new work or business retention. You simply can’t enter into any kind of negotiating process with your heels already dug in. If we won’t budge on fees, or brief deemed dates, why would that solicitor want to use us again? This is especially so if another set of chambers is waiting in the wings, ready to take the work that we’ve just lost. It may sound obvious: but the other party is far more likely to be flexible if you are too.
No matter how difficult the client and case may be, it’s important to remember that we’re all on the same side. From chambers’ perspective, it is a very simple process to initiate. As clerks, we try to set in motion a chain of events: we make the solicitor’s life easier; the barrister does a good job for their client; the client recommends the solicitor; the solicitor instructs us again. That keeps our barristers happy, which in turn enables us to concentrate on other aspects of our job. Some clerks may not think that there’s such a thing as a happy barrister. They exist, believe me... but they exist because they have a clerking team who understands how to make them happy.
Honesty is crucial. Without it, there is no trust: and then the working relationship is doomed. An honest perspective is essential for, say, recommending the right barrister for the right case. It’s not all about trying to shoehorn as much work in the diary as possible, but making sure that the correct decisions are made. And, should a mistake occur, honesty has to be a constant. If to err is human, then it’s my responsibility to ensure that I’m not the one doing the erring. To paraphrase Don Corleone: clerks can be careless, but not practice managers.
In the event of a mistake, the most important thing is how it’s fixed and learned from. Be honest, up front about it and offer a couple of solutions.
As I suggested earlier, try and see it from the other side: a little empathy will go a long way. Chambers and solicitors are both under enormous pressure; understand that, appreciate it and empathise. Under the strain of our daily lives, this is very easy to lose sight of very quickly; however, if that understanding is there, it will greatly assist in the building of secure, long-term working relationships. Chambers likes to bond with our solicitors whenever we can: we’ve laughed together, unwound together, and occasionally sung together.
Availability and efficiency
We’re all working long hours, often under tight time constraints (another Godfather quote, for those of you still with me: ‘This is the business we’ve chosen’). Waiting on someone for an unreasonable amount of time to come back to you before you can sign off that last piece of work can be frustrating and irritating.
Solicitors are much more likely to instruct barristers who are available when required and work with efficient clerks. Many of our longstanding clients have our clerks’ mobile numbers, and they know that they can call at any time, within reason. This business stopped having regular, immovable working hours decades ago. It’s important to accept that and, again, incorporate some flexibility but also respect into that equation.
While building new business is great fun, it is very easy to become too embroiled. I always have in mind that, while I’m doing that, someone else might be trying to win over our client base: it’s a constant plate-spinning exercise. I have always considered building longstanding relationships to be the ultimate goal. This needn’t necessarily involve karaoke in the wee hours, but that represents to me some kind of successful working relationship. For me there is no better validation of this than when a solicitor feels comfortable enough to ring me up directly to ask for my advice on a matter: whether it’s who I would recommend for a particular case, or simply to ask my opinion or a favour. That, for me, is a solid relationship.
It is vital to have a ‘can do’ attitude. I know the old cliché of ‘there aren’t any problems, only challenges’, and I’m prepared to admit that life is more complicated than that, but where there are problems, there are also solutions. The real skill is to identify what the solution is and be able to implement it efficiently. Building and maintaining your client relationships takes work but, done correctly, it’s rewarding and deeply gratifying.
COVID-19’s long shadow
It’s almost impossible not to mention the pandemic that has cast a long shadow over our lives this year. In addition to everything else that it has changed, it has also made a huge difference to how we all conduct our businesses. From our perspective, it has been especially important to make sure that we put all the above points into practice. We all need to provide stability in our working lives, and never more so than now.
Our clerking team has been working from home pretty much since lockdown back in March. There have been many conversations about when – and how – we’re going to be operating from the hub again. As things stand, and as the future looks more unclear by the day, our plan is to continue from home until advised to do otherwise. Like many, our clerks have learned to make remote working the norm and have taught themselves how to get the most out of it – despite the obvious temptation of spending all day in their gardens, sipping Piña Coladas. It is preferable to meet people face-to-face, but business has to continue. Despite ‘Zoom fatigue’, the solicitors that I have reached out to, whether new or long standing clients, have appreciated the contact. At least that’s what they’ve told me anyway!
So from that perspective there’s really no need to change what we’re doing for the foreseeable future. As well as that, Chambers is still open: we have been able to conduct conferences, private FDRs and arbitrations in person, in our impressive new premises, while complying with all the government’s guidelines. These are certainly uncertain times, but opportunities will arise and, with a team ethic and a positive attitude, I’m sure these opportunities will more than likely find their way to you.