The successful recruitment of a chief executive involves striking a delicate balance between the need for executive power for the chief executive and the potentially competing interests of members of chambers, clear up-front decision-making before any appointment is made and listening to good advice from those with direct experience of making this type of senior appointment.

Before chambers decide to appoint a chief executive, there must be support in chambers for that appointment, and a clear idea of what members expect. Richard Stead, head of chambers at St John’s in Bristol (where Derek Jenkins moved recently to take up the role of chief executive), commented: “The whole of chambers must be prepared to buy into the appointment of a chief executive. Such an appointment does provide a fundamental shift in the organisation and can provide a definite statement of intent for the future. It is also vitally important that the role of the chief executive is clearly defined in a job description so that it is understood how the role will impact upon current staff, upon members of chambers and upon the way in which chambers is run on a day-to-day basis. Chambers must be clear about what it is they want from the chief executive. Is it simple administrative/managerial/HR ability? Is it marketing ability? If so, is that to be hands-on marketing or simply organisation of the marketing efforts of chambers? One also needs to decide whether the chief executive figure is to be in charge of all members of staff, or whether the chief executive is of equal standing with the senior clerk and/or any business development manager.”

Critical factors for success

Once the appointment has been made it is important to define the scope of the chief executive’s authority. Many chief executives pinpoint the scope of the role (and especially the level of executive control) as the most critical factor for success or otherwise. At best there can be friction between the chief executive and the head of chambers or the management board. In the worst cases it has resulted in a schism. “Scope” is therefore number one on the list of things to get right. It must be set properly and enshrined in the chambers’ constitution— ideally with the full co-operation of the incoming new chief executive. How far will a chief executive wish to go, and should be allowed to go, in running chambers as a business?

Peter Rouse, a solicitor, spent a year as chief executive at 7 Bedford Row. He now runs Bar Select, the powerful new channel for new business for barristers. He believes that “a job description alone is not enough. Delegated authority mandated by the articles of association of chambers is the only way to ensure that a chief executive’s authority is real, immediate and not solely dependent on the favour of head of chambers.”

In order to reach an equilibrium it is necessary to elect a senior chambers’ representative—often the head of chambers—who can tend to the needs of members whilst allowing the chief executive to perform at an optimum level. It is however important to realise that in chambers the chief executive can have no greater powers than the board itself.

For chief executives to be effective they need to drive chambers’ key external relationships and suppliers, landlord, the bank, regulatory and compliance, finance and accounting as well as customers and intermediaries should all fall under their remit. Where customers are concerned the chief executive will often hold the key to those relationships and by being market-facing they will often spot new market opportunities for chambers to exploit.

Indeed a good relationship-driven chief executive will be the one who personally connects the set into new markets and new customers. Peter Rouse adds: “Aside from operations (clerking, building etc), the chief executive’s primary focus should be to sustain and build on chambers’ brand—the ability of chambers to attract business. Client relationship management and business development involve particular disciplines and skills rather than individual whim and preference; a chief executive needs the authority to deliver consistent and measurable performance over time.”He says, futher, on the question of costs: “A chief executive’s salary might represent 5-10 per cent of the overall chambers’ budget—one way to make sure a return on this investment is maximised is to empower the chief executive to ensure that the balance of 90-95 per cent of chambers’ annual spend is delivering value for money, particularly clerking which is always the largest area of cost and ‘protected’ by individual barristers from real scrutiny.”

The benefits of appointment

Richard Stead believes: “A good chief executive can, first, remove significant burdens of administrative and managerial responsibility from the head of chambers, other individual members of chambers, and the senior clerk; thereby freeing those individuals to pursue their own specialised areas of work for which they are often better suited. Furthermore, a good chief executive can bring experience and insights which can only be obtained from experience in management. He/she can also provide a focal point around which the whole business, barristers, clerks and administrative staff, can move forward together in a proactive (rather than reactive) manner. The head of chambers is likely to remain an important port of call when dealing with the individual members of chambers, but the reality is that the relationship between the head of chambers and the chief executive is of critical importance, and that they have to be able to work as a team together, with both parties understanding the distinctive nature of a set of chambers and the need for chambers to be run on a sound professional and business oriented basis.

“In terms of the bottom line, one might point to the impact of a chief executive upon the income/cost ratio. It is difficult though to put a value upon a contented and motivated clerks’ room, upon motivated barristers or, conversely, upon a poorly motivated clerks’ room etc. With a large set of chambers, whilst the financial benefit is incalculable, the thought of not having a chief executive is extremely worrying. The tasks undertaken by the chief executive would simply have to be reallocated to already hard pressed individuals. “There are a number of different and equally viable ways of running a set of chambers” Richard Stead concludes, “The chief executive route is one way that can, and does, work.”

Simon Chadwick is MD of Chadwick Nott, a legal recruitment specialist. Chadwick Nott was voted “Best Legal Recruiter” at the 2009 Recruiter Awards For Excellence.

Chief executives: core qualities

The chief executives serving in chambers across the UK have a variety of backgrounds. Some are drawn from the more traditional area of clerking and have increased their administrative and strategic influence over time whilst driving the business development of chambers.

Others have a financial background.

Over the past ten years the value of strategic marketing and customer relationships for chambers has been widely recognised and so a number of chief executives recruited particularly in the past five years have a background in marketing. There are 48 chambers in the UK who have a separate business development specialist and where such a person exists in conjunction with a chief executive, the chief executive is more likely to have a financial or general management business background these days. Regardless of the background, the chief executive will need the following core qualities:

  • He or she must truly understand the environment of professional services and preferably the unique personality and unusual business structure of chambers. This generally requires a higher degree of diplomacy than might sometimes be the case in industry and commerce.
  • He or she must be an “influencer” and a leader; someone who understands how to manage people effectively. Management skills are required to motivate the clerks and other staff but also to get the most out of the various personalities and intellects amongst the members. He or she must be adept at establishing and being able to grow relationships—externally and internally if they are to be effective.
  • The chief executive must be passionate about the next ten years ahead for the Bar and how to make the most of them. This will only come with a detailed understanding of chambers’ external environment and the challenges and opportunities ahead.
  • Lastly, they must be patient and able to adjust to the constraint imposed on their executive scope by chambers’ constitution—a pressure that is missing from the role in industry and commerce and even in some law firm environments.