The fall-out from the pandemic on ways of working is still reverberating at the Bar. Rooms in chambers stand empty as more barristers work from home; flexible hours are in demand and online meetings the norm. 

That quiet revolution in remote working has now received an investment boost of at least £10m which puts it firmly on the map – making it a realistic alternative to traditional working from chambers situated in the ancient passageways and courtyards of the Inns of Court. 

The Barrister Group (TBG) with over 230 barrister-members and a solicitor-client base of over 3,200 secured the investment deal with LDC, the private equity division of Lloyds Banking Group. It is a significant milestone for Harry Hodgkin and Stephen Ward, co-founders in 2001 of Clerksroom, now part of TBG.

Hodgkin, a barrister and CEO of TBG, tells Counsel: ‘I am a great fan of the Bar, a great traditionalist – I have no objection to chambers. And I would not want to see the demise of the Inns – that would be upsetting. But there are two big problems at the Bar which our model addresses: first, diversity – our model enables greater diversity because of the flexibility offering: you can choose your working hours and build your life around that, which appeals to women in particular. 

‘The second problem is cost: we have cheaper and lower costs, because the barrister doesn’t have to have a room. And if you are not earning, you don’t pay.’

The Bar Council Working Lives Survey in September 2021 found three in four barristers wanted changes to their working lives and remote working was most commonly mentioned, by 60%. 

It all began in Taunton more than 20 years ago. Hodgkin was a commercial/Chancery barrister with 3 Dr Johnson’s Buildings where he started out in general common law. When the set opened an annexe in the West Country he went too, favouring the move for his family. The annexe became an independent set and Stephen Ward its clerk. The pair then set up Clerksroom with another barrister, who in due course went his own way, leaving Hodgkin and Ward to make it what it has become today. ‘It was very much an equal partnership. We thought alike and both wanted to do things differently.’ 

There were a couple of early ventures but it was Clerksroom that really took off. ‘We wanted to get barristers out of the clerks’ room,’ Hodgkin says. ‘We didn’t like [those occasions] when barristers would come in at 4.30 and demand work or be unpleasant or even almost threatening, saying: why are you not looking after me? Where’s my proper work?’

Clerksroom grew and now has 8 silks, 224 barristers and 40 staff including clerks. It operates nationwide with a turnover of some £9.2m in 2022. Each barrister has a contract with the company for the provision of a clerking and other services. Barristers pay 15% of receipts (silks pay 10%) and determine their own working patterns and fee levels.

‘We did two things [as Clerksroom] that were significant: first, we created our own software which enabled any number of barristers to sign up, as there are no costs associated with case management and the licensing of software. Second, we set up Clerksroom Direct, a separate company, in 2014, enabling the public to instruct barristers directly. It has some 1,000 barristers on its books, most with traditional chambers.’

Hodgkin continued until recently to practise at the Bar (with Ward as managing director – he is now business development director). Then last December he decided to focus full-time on the business. The aim was to develop the model, ‘build a Bar for the 21st century’ and take on more expertise: they had no professional finance director or marketing department, for instance.

Now the new funds are enabling the creation of a third business, specialist barrister groupings, each with their own senior clerk – ‘sort of semi-autonomous “chambers entities” in a particular area of law’. The first is employment law but others will follow such as TBG Commercial, Business, Property, Family and Public Law. 

Practitioners are supported by the ‘Clerksroom engine’: the technology, and clerking operation based primarily in Taunton. All three companies – Clerksroom, Clerksroom Direct and the specialist groups – come under the TBG umbrella. 

Hodgkin is confident that he will attract specialist groups of barristers to join. He is in discussion with ‘quite a large set’ who have fractured and who may come across, with their own clerk. The clerk would be given an office in London, or work remotely. ‘But we would not be providing the barristers with rooms.’

Despite evident and growing success, however, suspicions lurk that the work of Clerksroom barristers is low level; or that barristers sign up when they cannot secure a seat elsewhere. ‘That is unfair,’ Hodgkin says. He admits that ‘aspects of our business, such as the block contracts with insurance companies providing fixed rates, that might not be attractive to all barristers’. High Court work, however, is routine. 

And TBG’s entry standards are above average for the Bar: earnings must be at £100,000 a year, for instance. ‘There is I believe a misconception at the Bar that the standards of our barristers are lower than average. But an application to TBG is declined if the barrister does not satisfy our recruitment criteria.’ These focus on proficiency, character and earnings levels (actual or potential), and are applied objectively by a recruitment committee. Disciplinary records are checked with the Bar Standards Board and ‘a significant number of applicants are unsuccessful’.

Those who do join are attracted by the benefits of ‘flexibility, cost effectiveness, freedom from personal liabilities, better software and marketing support and avoidance of chambers’ politics,’ he adds. Almost one in three of its barristers is from an ethnic minority background (in the wider Bar it is one in six), but only 29% are women, against some 40% at the Bar – a figure Hodgkin wants to improve.

So what of the old core relationship between barristers and clerks, that close nurturing of a barrister’s career through to silk and even the Bench? Hodgkin acknowledges this has been a gap and that their barristers want more ‘looking after’. To that end they are recruiting barrister ‘account managers’ who will ‘look after their welfare, careers, keep them happy – ask them to decide what they want to do and help them do it, not mould them – rather the other way round.’ Marketing, social networking and events are organised. Those applying for silk will be allocated an in-house silk mentor and helped through the process.

At the other end of the career spectrum, pupillages, which were put on hold last year during the company’s investment process, are to be resumed. The group has had a waiver from the Bar Standards Board to modify start dates: it will advertise for up to 12 pupils, each with a supervisor, a ‘friend’ and a specific clerk. Pupillages, of course, will involve more face-to-face contact. They will be paid £25,000 but for the second six months, TBG will try to ensure they obtain work, to pay the costs. 

Hodgkin also has potentially ground-breaking plans for apprenticeships. ‘I am very keen on this – it can’t be done for barristers at present but it could be run over seven years, four days’ work and one day education – and would mean anyone could come to the Bar, which they can’t at present. And they need a lot of money [to do so].’

In all this, he insists the traditional Bar has no need to fear. ‘I have always had a foot in both camps, traditional and modern,’ he says. (His hero is ancestor Dorothy Hodgkin, the first and only British woman to win a Nobel prize for science.)

He does not envisage the demise of chambers or the Inns. ‘I am a great fan of the system, having practised in it. But I do think that it will assist us all as a profession if we modernise and demonstrate to the public of England and Wales that we want to be open and transparent, to be consistent, that they can come to us direct – even for an opinion on a small matter.’

Meanwhile, the profession’s demand for new and flexible ways of working and wider access is being met. ‘I do really believe this is a model whose time has come.’