LPMA: a coming-of-age

Counsel talks to pioneers Christine Kings and Edith Robertson about the rise and role of the Legal Practice Management Association

Twenty-one years ago with a handful of members, the Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA) was established. 

It was the mid-1990s, when practice managers were still a novel idea, often viewed with suspicion, and few chambers had experimented with one. Founded by Christine Kings and Edith Robertson, now Chambers Directors at Outer Temple Chambers and Falcon Chambers respectively, the pair have been ‘the constant’ in the life of the LPMA since then.

They met through Helena Kennedy, as she then was, when Kings was Practice Manager at Doughty Street Chambers and Robertson was Senior Clerk at Goldsmith Building. Kings was the first practice manager to be appointed at the Bar in 1990 and had been introducing herself to new practice managers: ‘In 1994 I had three separate lunches with new recruits in a two week period and decided then that they all needed to be put in touch with each other. I invited about 12, all women, to Doughty Street to meet over a drink… and the result was the most almighty therapy session.’

They all had the same kinds of problems: problems with the clerks, problems with the barristers, no-one sure what they were there for, limited understanding in chambers of what the world beyond the Bar could bring. ‘The sessions over a drink continued, the therapy continued, and the idea of formalising the group to support practice managers around the country took root,’ says Kings. By 1996 a committee was appointed, a constitution was written, and the LPMA became fully fledged.

‘In those days there was a high turnover of practice managers, directors, chief executives and the like,’ explains Robertson. ‘In fact during the late nineties there was probably more job security as a football manager in the first division than in a chambers.’ Sets seemed to imagine that the panacea for all their ills was to employ a senior manager. Having employed them many were left without proper support as barristers realised that they wanted everyone else in chambers to be subject to change, but not them. ‘Frequently, the modus operandi from that era was to employ a practice manager to tackle perceived clerking issues. Needless to say, this did not go down well with the clerking fraternity who, understandably, viewed the advent of these new roles as a threat,’ adds Robertson.

The introduction of practice managers professionalised the management of chambers. This would have happened anyway, the pair explain, but they were a stark example of the way things were changing. ‘In many places this change was unwelcome. The sad fact is that practice managers in general had a difficult time in the early days, and some still do. There are still examples of the “special relationship” between barrister and clerk being allowed to undermine the authority of the senior manager,’ says Kings.

The role of both the practice manager and the senior clerk has, however, changed significantly over the years. Both roles have become much more specialised and the overlap between strategic business planning, client care and practice development demands that senior managers are pulling in the same direction. ‘The combination of changes in legal aid, the Jackson reforms, the LSA 2007 and the expansion in international work has, in one way or another, created significant insecurity and opportunity. The challenge for practice managers has been to monitor what competitor sets are doing, stabilise or expand shrinking incomes, maximise opportunities quickly, keep members together and motivated, and nurture the kind of change that sustains the organisation in the long term. In practical terms this can mean anything from restructuring and rebranding to upgrading IT or setting up a new company,’ notes Robertson. They are also likely to have the responsibility for managing regulatory change, ensuring individual barristers as well as the organisation as a whole is compliant with a whole raft of rules and regulations.

The LPMA has also changed over the years in response to the changes in the marketplace. Its meetings have been through an evolving process. At the beginning they were more about mutual support, skills training and informal guidance. The most popular of the early sessions was titled ‘the first 100 days’. Now sessions focus on strategic, regulatory, and organisational issues in briefings, seminars, and workshops. Most take place for an hour, over a lunchtime, so that there is minimal disruption to the working day and, given that the majority of LPMA members are women, evenings are kept free.

One of things they are most proud of is the way that the LPMA has now become part of the legal landscape. ‘The LPMA is now consulted on a regular basis by the Bar Standards Board, Bar Council and the Legal Services Board. Members are invited to comment on changes and initiatives, join working groups, and contribute on panels and at conferences,’ says Kings.

At 21 the LPMA is now fully matured and a natural home for all those involved in senior management roles, running chambers at the highest level. It has a good working relationship with the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC) and many senior clerks are members of both organisations. Although the emphasis is on the Bar, the LPMA also attracts senior staff from solicitors firms which brings a different dynamic. With over 180 members, plus associate members, the LPMA has established itself as an organisation that regulators must talk to if they want to introduce change in the profession.

Nowadays the main focus is on ensuring members are fully aware of all the latest developments that will impact on their chambers, as Robertson explains: ‘The LPMA tries to anticipate what issues are coming up and schedule sessions so that members can get a quick briefing, find out what the timetable is, and get clarification on what they need to be doing. Many of the sessions focus on practical approaches to complying with regulation, expanding work or managing change.’ Every year the LPMA invites the BSB and the Chair of the Bar Council to speak to members and answer questions. Its conference every other year is a full day of talks and presentations on current issues; the last one included sessions on social media, PR and marketing, managing your reputation in a data breach, and 21st century management. ‘The conference is always well attended and invariably gives rise to other follow-up sessions,’ adds Kings.

This year, among other things, the LPMA is looking at: wellbeing; executive coaching; entity regulation, including single person entities; chambers’ constitutional arrangements; GDPR compliance; employment updates; and developing strategic client relationships. ‘The big issues for the Bar are also many of the big issues for the LPMA,’ they explain.

There is also a distinction to be made between strategic regulatory change and operational regulatory issues, according to Robertson: ‘On a day-to-day basis it is the operational issues which occupy the time of practice managers but there could be major repercussions for the Bar if the existing regulatory bodies were replaced by one overarching regulator, as has been mooted on several occasions.’ In such circumstances, the LPMA would aim to be involved in discussions with any new body and try to ensure that there was a smooth transition in operational terms from one regime to another.

‘The legal market will continue to change significantly and the LPMA will continue to ensure that members get the information they need to keep abreast of developments,’ they assert.

Kings and Robertson are both clearly identified with the LPMA, but one of its unsung heroes is Alison Marshall, another long serving member who for many years managed the administrative and operational side of the organisation until a paid worker was appointed three years ago. Marshall doesn’t go back quite as far but has been an active committee member for at least 15 years. The trio are taking advantage of this milestone in the LPMA’s history to bow out at the AGM in July and leave the organisation in the very capable hands of their colleagues.

Contributors Christine Kings, director at Outer Temple Chambers, and Edith Robertson, director at Falcon Chambers, have been on the committee since its inception; latterly as co-chairs. The 21st anniversary of the LPMA will be celebrated at the Supreme Court on 5 October.

GETTING ISSUES ON CHAMBERS' RADARS

The LPMA’s new Co-Chairs are Catherine Calder, Director at Serjeants Inn Chambers and Robin Jackson, Director at 3 Verulam Buildings. LPMA priorities for 2017-18 include the following:

  • Constitutional issues: ensuring that chambers are properly constituted and have effective rules in place including for new ways of working.
  • Training for clerking staff (an ongoing joint initiative with the IBC).
  • Wellness for the Bar, including supervision models and crisis management.
  • Strategic business development sessions on a range of topics.
  • Preparations for implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018 (the LPMA is currently liaising with the Bar Council and IBC to commission some templates).

Membership is open to those who work exclusively, in an employed or freelance capacity, for a set of chambers or a solicitors’ firm and whose primary responsibilities are the management, development and/or marketing of the practice. The current membership fee is £50 per annum. See www.lpma.org.uk for further details.

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