How to Thrive in the digital age (2)

HD Lodge looks at practical ways for counsel to organise and work online, and how to avoid professional difficulties.

There is a man called Patrick on Facebook™*. He purports to be a barrister and offers legal “advice” for £6 (six pounds sterling) a time. None of us would compete with him on price; but each of us must adapt to the technology he uses.


The internet provides two opportunities for barristers. First, we can offer online to do work in the usual way with paper instructions. Second, we can offer online to do work online. Part 1 of this article dealt with the former: marketing yourself online (see Counsel (2009) May pp 29-30).

The internet is already allowing legal “consumers” to demand more accessible and flexible services. Patrick is an extreme example of this, offering online to work online for next to nothing. We will come under pressure to parcel-up our services into “commodities” that can be readily offered for sale, compared and exchanged. The pressure will be for chambers to be driven one of two ways: the factory or the boutique.

There will be a relentless downward pressure on fees, our “commodities” will be sold on price and convenience, as Richard Susskind argues. This has already happened with conveyancing work for solicitors, and certain set-piece applications (entry clearance in immigration, private defence on a driving matter in crime). Patrick has taken us a step closer to the exchange of briefs on e-Bay™.

Supply: public access work online

Patrick is in breach of the Bar Code of Conduct. In order to offer to perform services online one would have to complete the public access work course. The limitations of such work were considered at length by Marc Beaumont in the article “Public access barristers: Men of Letters?” (see Counsel (2008) February pp 22, 24), chiefly that a member of the Bar cannot conduct correspondence on behalf of the lay client on chambers’ note-paper, or in the manner a solicitor would.

The current public access training has no reference whatever to the provision of services online, but the prescribed client care letters would at least have to be sent or displayed online. The objections are not merely practical. Patrick is selling himself, his client and all of us short. The danger is that the net will over-brim with charlatans offering legal remedies, fake as Chaucerian relics and with no redress for the client when standards slide.

Who will counsel counsel?

As for our regulators and representatives, it is encouraging that the Bar Council has an IT Committee  and another which looks at the provision of legal services. There is a Public Access Bar Association* which I would say is good value for £75. The offer of online services by a barrister is clearly something which the Bar Standards Board will have to grapple with while they are considering their revisions to the Code of Conduct.

New law models: the blog

At the moment, members of the Bar can underline their expertise in their given field by blogging (keeping an online journal) on a subject or posting a podcast or an opinion on a point of law, without of course reference to any instructions which they have received. This could make them known, interesting and ultimately indispensible to solicitors. This is a subtle form of self-promotion, and will improve the chances of a lay client finding you on a search such as “family barrister” or something equally generic. If your blog contains a wealth of relevant terms, then Google™ will unwittingly promote you.

Blogs are very low cost to set up: the two most popular vehicles are wordpress and blogger.com. They are very easy to set up and to update. They are not to be undertaken however unless you feel confident that you have something interesting to say, and the commitment to say it at least twice a week.

Members of the public and solicitors may then approach you via your blog. Plainly you must not offer advice online via a blog, on the individual facts of a case presented to you. Remember the Code of Conduct requires the same standards in pro bono work as in remunerated work, and there can be no exception for the internet. There would be no objection to you using your blog as a source of first contact with solicitors, and then accepting work in the traditional way. Or indeed accepting public access work in compliance with the existing rules, exchange of “wet-ink” letters following such an online enquiry.

Individuals on the virtual cab rank

As technology improves, and regulation develops in the very near future, members of the Bar will make themselves available via the internet at short notice, on the move or in their homes, to give more flexible information and advice. For a fuller discussion please see NewLawModel.com

There is an express prohibition on the provision of tax and legal advice via the popular Skype™ site (essentially Skype is a budget video link using webcams). The firm are rightly concerned that consumers would rely on a service provided partly by Skype, and sue them when it goes wrong. In this respect Skype are more alive to the opportunity than the Bar itself, and have acted to close down the risk.
For now you can prepare yourself by undertaking the public access work course, and updating your website in the ways described in Pt 1 of this article, to better market yourself and be compatible with the acceptance of online instructions when they are permissible and available.

Collaborative models

Technology is encouraging members of the Bar to interact within larger co-operative structures, eg the new Extradition Lawyers’ Association, though this does not pose a threat to chambers as the basic working unit. For example, there is a basic fraternity amongst bloggers and it is in their mutual interest to “link” with similar sites to promote traffic.

Similarly, if you cannot persuade your set to invest in a decent website and decide to go it alone, there will be an advantage in being linked with other similar providers. You may find it convenient to pool resources such as news feeds. This pooling of non-essential but attractive content is the advantage of the white-label system discussed in Pt 1 of the article.

Having said that, when the work does come in you will not share it outside chambers. Briefs that started online will be processed by your set in the usual way. We will always need real clerks, even if we move to virtual offices. Collaboration online will lend credibility, enhance internet traffic but ultimately be driven by self interest.

Conclusion: build a wall of quality

Why engage with this at all? Why not rely on your solicitors and clerks, word of mouth, reputation? For most of us this is not an option, publicly funded work is dwindling and more cases on the civil side settle. Criminal work has come under pressure from forces as diverse as VHCC fee reform, the admission of previous convictions in evidence, and the increased appearance of solicitors/CPS advocates in the Crown Court. Also, at the junior end, anyone without a base of instructions needs to advertise on quality and convenience. The real controversy will come as increased competition leads to overt price comparison, and reduction.

Build a wall called quality. Stand firm behind it. Let it set you apart from the Patricks of the Bar. But make sure that, in your website or blog, your wall of quality has an online gateway.

HD Lodge is a barrister. *Detailed references, examples and links can be found at NewLawModel.com. Or email contact@newlawmodel.com

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