Financial trouble comes in different guises, at different times, and at different speeds. It could be an instant downturn in income – loss of a major law firm client, for example, or loss of a major earner or team of earners in chambers. The former could be a one-off moment, while the latter could develop and accelerate. Or, it could be a slower squeezing of a practice area as the worsening economy ‘out there’ begins to bite. It could be an even slower process by which the fabric of chambers deteriorates, where over time the talent in a set loses all passion, team-like behaviours – and loyalty.

In all of these examples, there are steps a set can and should take now to reduce the likelihood of them happening or to lessen the impact if they do happen. 

I cannot guarantee success here. What I am able to do, though, is tell you how to guarantee failure.

Set out below are the sure-fire things you can do to hasten and worsen financial meltdown. We can then work backwards from there and make sure we are doing none of these. 

  1. Obviously, everyone needs cash – members, staff, landlord, insurers and suppliers. Failure can therefore be guaranteed by you ignoring law firm clients who owe you money and by you being known as a set where slow payment is okay.
  2. You can make things even worse here by not billing work that you’ve done, quickly.
  3. Ignore trends in your business – don’t look, for example, for seasonality in cash terms, and for increases in billing and in debtor days.
  4. Keep overheads inappropriately high – premises with a high rent that you don’t really use any more are a real drain.
  5. If you can also reduce the work that you get from law firms, that’ll hasten failure. So, deliver a slow, unresponsive, variable service to them so that they cannot rely on you.
  6. Drop them in it from time to time too by cancelling long-standing bookings if something better comes in.
  7. And whatever you do, don’t engage with law firm clients to ask how you are doing and how you might be of more value to them. A real risk of you doing that is that you could get more work from other lawyers at those firms. Leave the cultivation of relationships with your law firm clients to your competitors.
  8. Internally, there is much that can be done to ensure failure. Un-team-like behaviours are a great way to go. Engender an ‘us and them’ environment where members and staff are divided, and maybe even where senior and junior members are divided. Or members who do private work and those that do legal aid work.
  9. Don’t communicate with everyone in chambers – or tell some people things but not others.
  10. Whatever you do, don’t have a plan that everyone believes in and knows the part they play.
  11. It’ll help failure if you have a management committee that meets erratically, where the attendees vary, where important parts of chambers are not represented (like the clerks or junior members) and where chambers never gets to hear what has happened.
  12. To do a proper job here, though, make sure nothing happens – make no decisions and push all issues into the long grass.
  13. It’s more of a longer-term path to failure, but not listening to members (particularly junior members) and showing no interest in the development of their practice will eventually get to them and they’ll leave. You’ll always be able to attract new pupils but they’ll eventually leave too. Clerks will leave as well if there’s no pathway for them; particularly if corrosive behaviours are tolerated. You‘ll become a university for other chambers.

Those, then, are the ‘golden rules’ that’ll ultimately ensure failure of a set. Hopefully they all make sense and readers will readily agree that none of them are a good idea for an ambitious set hoping to give its people a sustainable future.

Using these as a starting point, let’s now turn the tables and look at what needs to happen to ensure success for chambers, rather than failure. These fall into short-term priorities and longer-term priorities. Key things that jump out:

  • Short-term, I’d run chambers like a cash-hungry business. Don’t leave anything to chance. Do the work, bill it and get paid – quickly.
  • You need to keep the instructions coming in, so offer a service pledge to law firms – and move heaven and earth to constantly deliver on your promises. This takes a team effort. As well as ensuring that works keeps coming in, it’ll allow you – at least in private paying work – to charge more. Bentley service comes at Bentley prices.
  • As part of that service, talk with the law firms. If you get work from Solicitor A at a firm, who do Solicitors B and C there instruct?
  • Make decisions and stand by them – management is not a popularity contest. Decision-making is a highly respected quality.
  • Direction is another highly respected quality – set a plan for chambers, involve everyone in its design and its implementation.
  • Don’t leave the development of members’ practice to chance. People love to know that there’s a plan for them.
  • Keeping your staff motivated is key – try running chambers without them. Do they know where their career might go with you?

There are chambers who are good at some of these things all of the time, and chambers who are good at all of these things some of the time.

Which one are you – and what risks are you therefore running?