Managing chambers through COVID-19

Six key lessons learned during the ‘corona coaster’ so far, including how to build back better. By Rebecca Priestley


Early in 2020, Outer Temple Chambers met for a strategy day. We discussed how to implement a new five-year business plan, how technology will change the legal world and how barristers could set aside their competitive instincts and work collaboratively. Pandemics didn’t make the agenda, social distancing wasn’t practiced and none of us anticipated that within a few short weeks the world would be turned upside down.

As COVID-19 hit I was, however, able to call on one useful past experience; I’d worked at a bank during the 2008 financial crash. Dealing with unprecedented events, fast changing circumstances and stressed and anxious colleagues all helped inform my response to managing Chambers through COVID-19. Here are the lessons we’ve learned:

1: Keep calm, adapt and carry on

You can’t control extreme events; you can control how you react. The first priority was to act quickly to protect the health and safety of all our people.

In the run-up to full lockdown on 24 March, we ran a full pandemic pilot, shutting down the office and making everyone work remotely.

This allowed us to flush out any issues and draw up a clear business continuity plan to cover remote working arrangements, property and IT needs, financial management (including close monitoring of liquidity and cash flow), COVID-19 adapted business plans, communications and wellbeing.

To achieve all this quickly we had to streamline our decision-making systems. Going forwards, into what will inevitably be an uncertain and different business environment, we are looking at how to retain this nimble structure, so we can continue to respond and adapt more quickly, while taking our barristers and staff with us.

2: Communicate, communicate, and communicate

Regular and clear communication is critical. Even if you don’t have all the answers, it’s important to let people know what’s happening and the steps you are taking. At Outer Temple, one of the larger sets, we issue regular text and email updates and hold Zoom calls to update members on our business continuity plans. I also have regular Zoom calls with our staff team, making sure we stay closely connected and focused; funnily enough our staff team communicates more than we did before and we certainly know more about each other’s families, pets, haircutting skills and hobbies. A surprising number of people keep chickens. 

3: Client care is king

Responding quickly to the issues facing our clients was vital; and having a deep understanding of your clients’ business and strong personal relationships really help. Clients who are busy furloughing staff and managing urgent demands need useful advice and training delivered in agile ways. Having asked our clients what they wanted, we delivered a series of webinars sharing tips for conducting remote litigation and on topics such as force majeure and employment/health and safety issues. We also make sure our digital updates are user friendly; not a virtual tsunami.

We also offer clients flexible and commercial fee arrangements, recognising current financial pressures. Clients are human and will remember how they were supported in a crisis, generating loyalty and repeat instructions.

Now is a good time for barristers to update website profiles, write articles and speak directly to clients as we all feel Zoom fatigue. This helps to build your profile and strengthens connections.

4: Adapt your business plans to reflect how the market has changed, always driven by your clients’ needs

The legal market has been impacted significantly by the economic downturn and court closures. Some areas, such as business crime, health and safety and employment tribunal work have been immediately affected by court closures, not yet replicated by remote hearings. By contrast, the High Court has adapted swiftly, running remote virtual hearings, and complex commercial and other cases continue on the same timeline. We have sought to replace lost work in the most adversely impacted areas and are preparing for potential growth areas, as lockdown eases and courts re-open or adapt to remote operations.

As the maxim goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’; and this is particularly so in criminal and employment cases, which concern individual rights and freedoms and underpin the financial viability of many junior barristers’ practices.

5: Mental health and wellbeing

It is no surprise that people’s experience of lockdown is strongly influenced by their personal and financial circumstances. Many report exercising more, sleeping better and a happier work-life balance. However, those managing work and caring responsibilities, in cramped accommodation, living in isolation or worrying about paying the bills as work levels fall can find it extremely challenging. For all of us, the ‘corona coaster’ generated by ongoing uncertainty can mean feeling able to cope one day and not the next. Many who have never experienced mental ill health before have suddenly found their mental health suffering.

We have taken a number of steps to support wellbeing: establishing a support group available to discuss any issue confidentially; sharing wellbeing tools including the excellent Wellbeing Portal on the Bar Council website; and the management team calling every barrister and staff member to check they are okay.

On the more light-hearted side, we have WhatsApp groups including ‘pupdates’ of 11 puppies born in lockdown, whose charms saw us through to The Lawyer’s ‘World Cup of Chambers’ Twitter semi-final. We also hold weekly Zoom teas and will shortly host an ‘Outer Temple’s Got Talent Cocktail Hour’ with a cocktail masterclass and a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as never seen before (and hopefully never seen again).

6: Building back better

This crisis underlines the importance for chambers to be run effectively and agilely with clear business plans and strong financial management. All are beginning to plan life beyond lockdown and a safe phased return to offices. Attitudes to working arrangements and bricks and mortar are changing, reinforcing the need for greater IT investment and challenging the use of traditional Chambers buildings with their high fixed costs and rigid layouts. Many are closely examining property needs, while recognising that the camaraderie and knowledge exchange that comes with sharing physical space remains part of the glue that binds a chambers and gives it competitive edge.

There is an opportunity to leverage the best of remote working to minimise unnecessary travel and costs. It’s telling that it has taken a global pandemic to shift attitudes to flexible working and what is achievable and acceptable. I believe we can build back better, maintaining our new-found flexibility to drive increased diversity at the Bar, enabling more women to progress to the highest ranks and all of us to live healthier lives, with a lighter environmental footprint.

Our 2021 strategy day may have a different focus but the collaborative spirit will be even stronger. This crisis has witnessed our country collaborating for the greater good and led us all to reevaluate what matters when witnessing the extraordinary and humbling levels of personal commitment and sacrifice among our frontline workers. In Chambers we want to play our small part in the recovery from this crisis by keeping the legal wheels turning and consistently delivering excellent services to our clients.

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Rebecca Priestley

Rebecca Priestley is Chief Executive of Outer Temple Chambers, joining last year from Lloyds Banking Group where she was People Director, Group Employee Relations and Policy. An experienced Executive HR Director and City lawyer, Rebecca has also been Head of HR Legal at Lloyds Banking Group and Standard Chartered Bank and a senior associate at Simmons & Simmons following initial practice at the Bar. Rebecca is also a Non-Executive Director on the Board of the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), an alliance of FTSE 100 companies and City law firms, committed to building mentally healthy workplaces.