You have been the CEO at Parklane Plowden for over two years, and their first. How have you found the transition to the Bar?
Hmm. A few observations:

  • Firstly – paper! Everywhere I look there seem to be files, blue note books and bundles tied up in red tape.
  • I had thought that the Bar was in a relatively stable position and was surprised by the pace and level of change.
  • Comparing chambers to solicitor firms, although relatively small, the structure of chambers and relationships with members on, say, property matters make them more complex. The relative size does not allow for a huge administration team and in common with many other chambers’ directors, the answer to the question “Who does xxx?” Is generally “That would be me”.
  • Barristers - Having worked with lawyers before I thought I understood them. It is fair to say that barristers are another breed.

Before coming to the Bar you worked for law firms such as Burges Salmon and Maclay Murray & Spens. What do you credit your success to?
Being a Chartered Accountant and having trained and worked with Deloitte in Leeds and London. This breadth of experience, of looking at a range of businesses and issues, gives a great start in the range of activities undertaken. It is also fair to say that firstly accountants, then solicitors and now the Bar have had to embrace change and commerciality, so I have been able to use my previous experiences.

Your chambers is based in Leeds and Newcastle. What effect, if any, are the Government cuts having on your members and areas of work?
We are a civil set with historically a significant proportion of our work being CFAs as well as a smaller element being Legally Aided. The full impact of Jackson/LASPO is still to be fully understood but undoubtedly it will cause individual members’ incomes to fall.

As a business professional coming to the Bar half way through your career, where do you see the challenges and future of the Bar being?
There have probably been more changes to the Bar in the last ten years than in the previous 300 years and the pace of change is picking up so it is clearly a challenging time for the Bar as a whole.

Since I have worked in Chambers these changes have included: regulatory changes to renewals processes for indemnity insurances and practising certificates, changes to complaints procedures, equality & diversity data gathering and publication, and recruitment processes; the introduction of the new contractual terms and impacts of LASPO; widening of public access and initiatives such as BarCo. We know that entity based regulation is coming and the ability of the Bar to set up ABSs to allow services to be delivered in a different way. We also need to add to the mix the rise of the ABS solicitor firms with new commercial imperatives and processes.

Regulatory - There is not much that we can do about the regulatory aspects as this is being driven by the Bar Standard Board and the Legal Services Board.

Operating structures -On the commercial side the Bar needs to accept that not changing is not an option and to look ahead to operating from appropriate business structures of an appropriate size to allow for economies of scale.

Use of technology - For the Bar to survive, we need to innovate to meet the client’s changing needs. Most chambers have potentially sophisticated case management systems but only make use of a small element of the functionality. A number of the routine tasks carried out by clerks such as booking cases in, chasing briefs and papers, billing and fees collections are capable of being operated by sophisticated workflows. However it is vital that the clerks and barristers themselves have sufficient knowledge of how key elements of the process work and how they can help by using the system. Training for both staff and barristers is therefore key.

Many solicitor clients, especially the larger new entrants, are making extensive use of technology to drive down the time and costs of handling cases. They are looking for links between their case management systems and ours to avoid multiple handling of case data and files. This is not straightforward as there are a multitude of systems used but use of APIs by the software supplier should be able to assist in this process.

In addition we need to look to reduce the high volumes of physical papers received by Chambers, possibly taken into court and shipped back to clients. This involves working with clients and barristers (and as appropriate the courts) to determine what medium and format is best for particular cases. In addition it involves looking at appropriate hardware and software to allow barristers to review and annotate soft copies of documents.

Service Level Agreements - Another key area is management information for our larger clients, who want confidence that we are meeting our agreed service level standards with regard to turn round of papers etc.

Barristers – Barristers will need to be more involved in the management of cases rather than just the “clever bit in the middle”. They also need to be more active in marketing themselves to potential and current clients.

What is the best professional advice you have been given?
There have been two. The first, that generally it is best to make decisions even if they are wrong rather than worrying too much about getting every decision “right”. The second, as a “ non lawyer” working in a “non accounting” business, learn to be amused rather than worked up when a lawyer changes his or her mind during a single sentence and can’t see anything odd, or when the keenest legal minds show a breathtaking lack of understanding of a practical/business issue.

Neil Douglas was interviewed by Guy Hewetson, a partner at Hewetson Shah LLP