Rules of engagement

The cost of employing the staff team is often the largest single element of expenditure for a set of chambers. Are your set’s employees ‘fully engaged’ or are they simply ‘coming to work’?


How engaged is your set’s staff team? The ADP Research Institute’s Global Study of Engagement 2018 concluded from a sample of 19,346 employees across 19 countries that only 15.9% were ‘fully engaged’, with the rest simply ‘coming to work’. Similarly, the 2018 State of the Global Workplace Report from Gallup found that 85% of employees were either ‘not engaged or actively disengaged’ at work.

Employee engagement is defined by the CIPD as ‘emphasis[ing] both employees’ well-being and performance… offer[ing] a mutual gains view of the employment relationship, seeking the good of employees and the organisation in tandem’. Its benefits are well established. While we may be understandably wary of some of the theory – terminology such as ‘enculturation trajectory’ and ‘neuro-linguistic programmes’ are unlikely ever to be bandied about at the Bar – it’s hard to ignore the results. A University of Bath School of Management 2012 report entitled Engage for Success: The Evidence sets out a slew of persuasive statistics, including that:

70% of the more engaged have a good understanding of customer needs compared to only 17% of the disengaged (PWC);

those employees in high engagement companies also report less workplace stress: 28% versus 39% (Aon Hewitt);

94% of the world’s most admired companies believe that their efforts to engage their employees have created a competitive advantage (Hay); and

54% of the disengaged say work has a negative effect on their physical health in comparison with 12% of the engaged (Gallup).

The link between employee engagement and the success of the organisation is perhaps particularly relevant to sets of chambers as providers of professional services. The Harvard Business Review notes that ‘exemplary service companies emphasise the importance of each employee and customer’ as part of a service-profit chain which, in summary, sees a positive employee experience as driving retention and productivity, so improving service to in turn build the client loyalty which leads to growth and profitability. This profitability allows further investment (via the contribution in sets of chambers) into the employee experience, to complete the circle.

Certainly, a chambers’ product is its people, and that’s the employees as well as the barristers: 20 years of meetings with solicitors and other clients have confirmed to me that the relationship with the staff team plays a crucial part in their choice of chambers and counsel. It’s clearly important then that those relationships, built out of multiple small interactions over weeks, months and years, are as effective as possible for the prosperity of the set and everyone working within it as members or staff.

Valuing the whole team

Although ‘happy staff = happy clients’ has become something of a LinkedIn platitude, it is no less true for that and, as noted in the internal communications publication, Inside, ‘your brand is only as good as the worst decision that any one of your employees makes’. It makes sense to do all you can to make those decisions work for your set.

Further, the connection between employee engagement and retention of staff is particularly relevant to chambers given the retention issues we face. Of course, the Bar is not unique in having to address the costs of increasing staff turnover. The most recent Resourcing and Talent Planning Survey from CIPD/Hay (2017) reported that more than 80% of organisations had challenges retaining one or more categories of staff in the preceding 12 months and that the median rate of labour turnover had increased to 16.5%. This is in part a millennial phenomenon. According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, 43% expect to leave their jobs within two years and only 28% seek to stay beyond five. This is striking since millennials (currently aged 25-34) represent the largest group of clerks, accounting for 29% of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks membership according to a recent study. Given that Deloitte found that Generation Z employees (aged 20-24) are even less loyal, with 61% saying that they would leave their jobs within two years if they were given the choice, this problem is unlikely to go away.

Working to engage employees won’t necessarily stop them leaving – people’s careers take them in different directions – and of course a certain level of turnover is healthy to refresh the dynamics and bring in new perspectives. But a focus on employee engagement might help to keep colleagues on-board and on-side for longer, preventing premature or acrimonious departures and making transitions smoother when they occur.

For these and many other reasons – not least the creation of a happier day-to-day working environment – employee engagement might perhaps be higher on the list of agenda items for the annual chambers meeting. The question is, how to approach it? Unfortunately, as The Economist has noted, it isn’t simply a case of realising that ‘all you need to do is to be nice to your employees and miracles will happen’.

Twelve top tips

Of course every set will find its own approach, but for Serjeants’ Inn it has been about an emphasis on treating our staff as the professionals they are – which means giving more and expecting more – and, as with any management strategy, working hard on communication. Our 12 top tips are as follows:

Send a message: in recognition of the fact that we are one team we include a list of everyone together, barristers and staff alike, in alphabetical order on our website. This could have been an empty gesture if we hadn’t combined it with more concrete action but we believe we are the only set to present our staff as an integral part of the organisation in this way. It was a clear show of commitment.

Make the first move: we started by being more generous in multiple small ways. We had always had perks such as gym membership and massages but added additional holiday over Christmas, dress-down days etc. Importantly, these all involved the implicit recognition that the staff team could be trusted to do what was required within a less prescriptive regime.

Identify objectives: according to an Aon Hewitt report, employees who say their organisational values are ‘known and understood’ are 51 times more likely to be fully engaged. We looked hard at what Serjeants’ Inn stood for in a brand review three years ago and our ‘Trusted when it’s critical’ positioning was designed to resonate internally as well as externally.

Communicate objectives: our joint Heads of Chambers led two breakfast briefings, setting out our strategy and values and linking them to the part played by individual employees via some key case histories. This significant investment in silk and staff time was a crucial starting point and has provided a persuasive paper for our induction pack for new staff.

Set expectations: we are clear that we are giving more responsibility along with more benefits – we are looking for more in return, and in measurable terms. Having established the key objectives, we have asked our employees to identify their own ways of working towards them, pinpointing some very specific performance targets in individual business plans to be reviewed on a quarterly basis. This is time consuming for us all but, as the adage goes, ‘what gets measured, gets done’, and it makes it easier to recognise individual achievement which might otherwise be missed in the dash of the day.

Use technology: noting that ‘growing personal use of social media has accustomed people to being able to voice their opinions, and this has also raised people’s expectations of how they should be heard inside organisations’ (Silverman et al., 2013), we have supplemented our intranet with an anonymous online feedback facility and a Yammer platform for social purposes.

Conversations still count: numerous studies, including a 2009 McKinsey Quarterly, show that one-to-one communication can be more motivating than financial incentives. We have restructured our premises to put the staff team at all levels together in one space. This facilitates individual interaction and allows us to pick up on issues as they arise, addressing any problems as well as acknowledging what goes well.

Consult and respond: we commissioned a former litigation partner to conduct a three-month review of our case-handling process in order to refine and improve it for clients, barristers and staff alike. Steps taken as a result have ranged from equipping every employee with two computer monitors to the recruitment of a bespoke three-strong fees team.

Foster the sense of a team: in an atypically lyrical observation in the otherwise straight-talking Nine Lies About Work, the authors note that, ‘the team is the sun, the moon, and the stars of your experience at work’. We are always looking for ways to bring people together for example for social events and charity projects, and are currently creating a chambers common room as a place for people to chat and relax together.

Celebrate success: we write up what the staff team have achieved together in monthly bulletins and have recently introduced the ‘Token Thanks’ initiative, which recognises good work as defined (loosely) by reference to six core objectives. The inaugural prize is ‘Dinner in the Sky’, suspended high above the Thames from a crane.

Be philosophical when things don’t work: they won’t always. For example, for far too long our weekly all-staff meetings were effectively an address from senior management, rather than any kind of team dialogue. We eventually improved this by dispensing with an agenda in favour of a free-flow 30 minutes encompassing anything anyone thinks is relevant. This has greatly increased participation and scope, making the meetings much more useful.

Remember why it is important: of course this is in part about profit, in order to benefit everyone earning their living at the set. We also have a responsibility to pull together to help our lay-clients, who are often facing the crisis of their lives, sometimes with life or death consequences: recent Chambers work includes the Alfie Evans proceedings, the fresh Deepcut inquests and the assisted suicide litigation. We want to be the best we can for professional and lay-clients working with Chambers, and for tenants and staff working within it.

In summary, we are trying to ingrain an employee experience founded on the principle that people will contribute as professionals if they are treated as professionals, and that everyone works better in a positive and even fun environment. Obviously this can’t be forced but, as Andrew Carnegie observed, ‘there is little success where there is little laughter’.

Of course, the success of this strategy depends also on the right approach on numerous related issues such as recruitment and training, and we have further to go: we are about to overhaul our appraisal system, for example. We are conscious that we need to keep interrogating and improving our approach, tailoring it to individuals in what will always be an evolving process.

But we believe that this philosophy has led to clear results in service to clients and recent success which, over the last three years, has encompassed substantial rises in turnover year on year despite pressure on funding in our fields; the expansion of our silk team from 9 to 22 QCs; and numerous accolades such as – most recently – the 2019 Legal 500 Client Award for Communication and Innovation. Most importantly, this is in the context of the work by Serjeants’ Inn barristers in cutting-edge cases including the litigation allowing a claimant in a clinical negligence case to receive surrogacy costs as a new head of damages and the test case concerning the issue of illegality as a defence in medical malpractice actions, both of which are due before the Supreme Court.

This momentum would be impossible without a strong and cohesive staff team, supporting our barristers in concentrating on their clients and cases. Like the Harvard Business Review, we have found employee engagement, ‘a simple, elegant, and ultimately tough-minded way to build profitability in a service business’.

Catherine Calder is Joint Chief Executive at Serjeants’ Inn, the award-winning set which specialises in high-stakes cases, often involving important legal, ethical and social issues.

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Catherine Calder

Catherine Calder, director of client care, Serjeants' Inn.