For 30 years, barristers have been allowed to promote their services and most sets of chambers, steered by marketing or business managers, have adopted a more customer-oriented approach in their organisation and operation. Practitioners have also had to acquire marketing skills and deploy a wide range of strategies to promote themselves. Essentially, this involves an appreciation of branding and relationship-building, which means establishing a clear individual professional identity as an expert in a particular field. Then, having a plan to develop that expertise, to raise one’s profile, to identify and target potential clients and win them over.

For multiple reasons, work has diminished in many areas. The professional landscape was already bleak for many, only to be dramatically worsened by the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when many practitioners are not physically attending court, conferences or seminars and have little face-to-face contact with solicitors or clients, it seems all the more critical for barristers to be more enterprising and to develop and mobilise their marketing skills, despite these constraints. From the research I conducted between 2013 and 2019 into the Bar’s organisational and cultural life, I have found that the more adventurous favour the following five key marketing tools.

1: Social media

One Bar marketing consultant felt that raising one’s profile was all about making connections and that using social media sites was an obvious (and free) way to do this. LinkedIn or Twitter enable users to reach far wider networks than they could in person, and both provide flexible platforms on which to forge professional relationships. While many barristers have joined one or both, few maximise the tools on offer for marketing purposes. Many are suspicious of or ignorant as to how social media works: ‘I’m not interested in what Phillip Schofield’s doing this morning.’ Others are more engaged and can see the benefits: ‘Get my name out there… it gives me more clout, people take more notice of me… it’s another way for people to have heard about me.’ What might you do to develop meaningful connections on either?

Join or create a specialist group on LinkedIn

Invite solicitors, lawyers working abroad and other experts in that field to join. Organise or take part in subject specific webinars on new developments. Create online fora where the group can discuss legal news, new cases and legislation. Be a leading and active participant.

Making the most of Twitter

On Twitter seek out and start following others in your field or in an area in which you seek to develop expertise. Read the links or add your own to share recent judgments, articles, blogs, cases. Twitter is a good forum for correcting inaccurate reporting in the mainstream media or debunking misleading government pronouncements on the legal profession or the law. It is also an opportunity to engage with a broader audience interested in the same topics.

While never actually selling their services, many who have built relationships on social media have acquired reputations beyond these platforms and are approached by the wider media, as experts for TV and radio interviews or articles. This kind of dedicated engagement might seem daunting and/or time consuming, but as one interviewee put it: ‘Anyone can make time to have conversations in the course of a working day.’ Many have found that being active on these networking sites slowly leads to real reputational exposure, forging trust, credibility and resulting in new instructions. Guidance on using social media is on the Bar Council and Bar Standards Board websites.

2: Specialise or diversify your practice

Barristers have become micro specialists and/or have acquired new knowledge and expertise, often to compensate for work lost to solicitors or legal aid cuts. Many now do more regulatory work, whether it be medical, trading standards, health and safety or police authority. Some undertake licensing, extradition, asset recovery, costs law or education board appeal work, to give a few examples. How might you branch out or refine your specialism?

Go on secondment for anything up to a year

For those that are relatively junior, this gives you a chance to develop a really close relationship with a solicitor’s firm or other organisation, as well as a solid foundation in the given practice area. One family law partner explained that his firm actively sought to develop relationships with barristers (‘We make huge efforts to get to know family sets’), often offering six-month paralegal jobs to those still seeking pupillage. He went on: ‘If we are incredibly busy, if we’ve a huge case, rather than going to a recruitment agency and obtaining locum solicitors, who tend to be of an incredibly low quality, we will go to chambers and we will get a junior to come in for a few months’. One junior criminal barrister, who took part in my research, spent four months in-house at the Nurse and Midwifery Council, presenting their cases. Upon return to independent practice and boosted by this experience, he developed a defence practice in that area. Some chambers have connections with lawyers abroad, allowing junior members to spend anything up to a year there, to learn, work, network and build an international practice.

Extend knowledge/connections in the chosen field

This can be done via social media, by joining a specialist Bar or law wide association, by signing up for seminars, conferences or online webinars or lectures, reading law reports, journals and specialist blogs, maybe writing something. Do some pro bono work in that field. Circuit chambers actively court local solicitors, focusing on local Law Society events more than traditional Bar gatherings.

3: Write more

More barristers now write academic or mainstream books, practitioner texts, journal articles and blogs. The more niche the subject, the better, making them the expert to go to. Publications often complement and build on other forms of marketing and create a broader net to attract potential clients. One sole practitioner, who relies only on direct access work, feels that: ‘If people have heard about me from several different ways, they’re more comfortable with it.’ Posting or linking written pieces on social media increases search engine exposure, drives more traffic to personal profiles on chambers’ websites and can enhance one’s reputation with clients.

4: Do more direct/public or licensed access work

For only a few barristers does this kind of instruction contribute significantly to their income. Many don’t like it and feel uncomfortable with close client contact. Yet, this is a great source of work for the Bar, at all levels and in many areas of practice. It is not necessarily single, non-repeat custom as some institutional clients welcome the cheaper and expert services of the Bar. A few chambers have dedicated websites and clerking teams to promote this service and practitioners can sign up on the Bar Council or other portals. There are other ways to seek direct instructions. Individual practitioners or teams approach regulatory bodies, businesses or other organisations, having anticipated how they might assist, advise or represent. They create contacts at their local chamber of commerce or with in-house counsel at specialist conferences and get invited to give presentations to pitch for work. A few put adverts in media outlets to attract specific clients.

5: Get some marketing or media training

Most chambers offer members some form of marketing training, from simple sessions on how to use social media to more specific skills, like giving TV and radio interviews. Barristers and clerks have networking training on how to work a room, giving them more confidence at marketing and social events. Practitioners have one-on-one coaching to help identify their goals and how to reach them.

It may not be possible to engage with or fully develop these self-promotional endeavours at the moment, but in the longer term, some or all of these are essential marketing activities for everyone.