What initiatives have you been involved with to support your members in light of the continuing squeezing of the Publicly Funded Bar?

The first thing was to look at what we wanted to be as a business. We realised early on that we needed to be as efficient as possible commercially with the squeeze on rates for publicly funded work, and recognised the need to tender for work. Public authorities are coming together and, organisationally, we needed to be ready. We are fortunate to have very good experience in our clerks’ room coupled with commercially focused support staff from our CEO downwards, enabling us to put credible pitch documents together and make effective presentations to prospective clients. We’ve seen that 90% of the tender forms centre around the structure of our business in terms of our policy on equality and diversity and what HR procedures we have in place, and we get the sense it is a standard template. We have a comprehensive range of internal policies so we feel our internal process stands us in good stead when answering a number of these questions. A more sophisticated tender form which is specific for the Bar is probably overdue, as it doesn’t appear local authorities have really thought this through. We’re not sure this has happened yet, but it is time for the Bar and local authorities to sit down and work this out.

ProcureCos…Holy Grail or window dressing?

We think they are a solution looking for a problem, and are not sure their day has come yet. We’ve done the relevant due diligence but for the moment we are staying focused on building partnership arrangements with client law firms and local authorities. There’s been a lot of debate and ProcureCos seem to be the Bar equivalent of an Alternative Business Structure. It is a little too early to say, but there are still many issues to be resolved. They may suit some types of work, but they are not the panacea that some suggest.

More and more barristers are being trained up for public access work, where does your chambers stand on this?

We have an open mind to it and are ensuring our clerks are appropriately trained. We have suggested that barristers actively consider it and there are members within chambers who have undertaken the necessary training in order to accept instructions direct. However, we have not rushed headlong into it as others have. As well as the considerable resource implications around dealing directly with clients, we regularly refer cases to our solicitor clients, who instruct chambers when Counsel’s input is required. We still believe the main core of our work will come from solicitors and are therefore keen not to damage those relationships in any way. We will, however, continue to keep abreast of publicly funded access work.

If a criminal practitioner wanted to diversify their practice, what advice would or have you given?

Our criminal work is mostly around regulatory and SFO proceedings, yet we still undertake a reasonable amount of conventional criminal work. We are ready to deal with the cuts in criminal fees as we have the appropriate systems in place. We have 11 practice groups and have policies that allow for diversification of practice; both criminal and family practitioners are taking advantage of this. The advice would be don’t rush the diversification process: do it slowly and steadily. Crime is heavily court based and so the requirements of a more paper based practice take a while to combine effectively, but it can be done. Practice development and reviews every three months are core to our infrastructure and we feel a proactive and transparent approach is key to the success of our members.

In your view, how can the future stay bright for common law sets?

We believe this could be the new dawn for common law sets as their value is recognised again. One of the real plus points of a common law chambers is that there tends not to be an over reliance on one particular discipline. By ensuring that there is a strong overlap between the various disciplines, it allows for cross fertilisation of work and a greater respect for various people’s practices. There is little doubt now as to the need for sets to have forward looking advanced infrastructures with the ability to attract good quality challenging work. Being self-critical will support the members. Since ’95 there have been two sea changes about the future of the Bar. However, change is upon us and those who are able to adapt will flourish. It has taken a lot of work to get us in the position we are today, and we feel confident about what the future holds.

Guy Hewetson, LPA Legal, interviewed Ron Smith & Michael Goodridge