For a number of years, secondment placements involving members of the UK Bar have been growing steadily. However, 2020 saw the recruitment sector, like so many industries, grind to an abrupt halt following the unwelcome introduction of COVID-19 into our lives. Faced with an uncertain market, firms were forced to reconsider their short-term business plans and with many having to furlough or lay-off staff, secondment opportunities for the self-employed Bar became reduced significantly.

Many business owners harbour feelings of uncertainty about recruiting on a permanent basis in the current climate. While the rollout of vaccines appears to be moving us toward a return to some form of normality, if 2020 taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected, and with that comes a degree of hesitation when it comes to recruiting, particularly at a senior level.

For our clients who have shared this concern, secondments offer the perfect solution: a temporary remedy to a skills shortage that gives them access to the most highly qualified candidates in the market, members of the UK Bar.

The realisation that the majority of us who work in the legal industry are able to run our businesses and operate just as efficiently while working remotely, has led to clients now operating with a degree of optimism. Indeed, with a year’s hiatus and a strong first quarter behind us, we appear to be entering a burgeoning period for movement across the market.

It is with this in mind that we are able to feel a sense of excitement for what the remainder of 2021 has to offer.

The Bar’s value to employers

So, what are employers looking for in a secondment from the ranks of the Bar? There are, of course, many reasons why a firm may want to second a barrister to their team, whether it be to carry out a disclosure exercise, provide cover for maternity/paternity leave or to take on the advocacy they may have previously outsourced to UK counsel. Whatever the purpose, there is one constant expectation: expertise.

The UK Bar is perceived to be at the top of a profession that is regarded as the best in the world. Of course, your level of experience will largely depend on the opportunities you have been afforded through chambers or your company, but from an employer’s perspective there is an assumed level of quality. It is that attribute that makes you such an attractive acquisition.

In years past, making the move from the self-employed to the employed Bar often came as something of a culture shock to those who had come straight into the profession without previous experience of employment. But solicitors’ firms and those in-house teams which are part of larger corporate entities are always ahead of the curve and now make that transition far easier. For those of you in chambers, the last year will have seen new tech and systems being implemented, all of which are unlikely to be novel to the firms who may be looking to recruit you. While many of our clients reported uncertainty in the market regarding new work when the pandemic hit, the vast majority were already au fait with Zoom, Microsoft Team meetings and the like, and were able to execute remote working at the click of a button, having already implemented flexible working arrangements in previous years.

Having such arrangements in place will make adapting to a different working environment much easier, as you will likely have the freedom you are currently afforded to manage your own workload as you see fit. You will, of course, need to consider the competitive edge you may currently harbour and remember that you are moving into what will be a team environment; one that will likely make your life far easier if you are willing to embrace a team player ethos.

Although it goes without saying that each secondment in which we place members of the Bar has its own specific requirements that will need to be adapted to, there is also a common theme amongst clients as to what they are looking for in their ideal candidate. In addition to assumed quality, most are seeking someone with a modern and dynamic approach. This means ensuring that you remain open minded to new processes or alternative approaches to your work.

For placements within litigation teams, you will be expected to have strong drafting skills – which are part of the usual skillset of members of the Bar – and also to play a business development role, which may not come so naturally. For senior roles, you should be prepared to take on the role of a team leader and mentor.

When applying for a secondment it is important to remember that, in the employer’s eyes, you are already part of the same team; a single profession that is offering you opportunities that might not be possible to gain at the self-employed Bar, both domestically and internationally.

The value of a transitional move

Benefits to the individual practitioner

The Bar Council reported in December 2020 that the pandemic had seen 72% of barristers experiencing a significant reduction in new fee income, with over 24% having to take on additional paid work, some in low-skilled roles. As the pandemic continues, with many courts still struggling to adapt and many barristers unable to practice, secondments offer a lifeline.

It is understood that one publicly funded set had nearly a third of chambers on secondment at one time. This may or may not be sustainable as a business model, but with some secondments paying more than publicly funded rates it can be a viable supplement to this work. The danger is that individuals can find it difficult to turn down a secondment and feel duty bound to assist their clients.

Financially, secondments can not only benefit the individual barrister but also the instructing firm, allowing them to source a high-quality member of the UK Bar, and in some instances for a similar hourly rate to a locum solicitor. Being taken on as a member in a good quality set is undoubtedly seen as a quality mark of ability, giving reassurance to firms as to the quality of the secondee, compared to the ‘hit and miss’ element to hiring a locum solicitor. If on a full-time agreement, the firm also benefits from the barrister’s full commitment as opposed to sharing their working hours with other instructing firms which, of course, is normal practice at the Bar. Most firms or governing bodies expect the secondee to commit to a full working day, allowing the barrister to invoice for every hour worked on a monthly basis and guaranteeing a regular income stream.

Secondments have always been a first-class way of allowing counsel to develop and explore new practice areas, and with the modern Bar having to adapt to new working practices and new legislation at a rapid rate, they have never been such a useful tool in the development of an individual’s practice. In the past, secondments were often viewed as something that was done to supplement the income of the publicly funded Bar or those still finding their feet and needing to supplement their income. There is no doubt that secondments can still play a useful part in helping in those areas, but at Causidicus we have seen first-hand how modern, business-minded chambers have built them into their practice development and business plans. They are aware of the business development opportunities that secondments afford, in terms of client care and service; exposure to targeted work streams; forging links with target firms and working relationships with individuals within those firms; obtaining a better understanding of how chambers’ client firms operate, the pressure they face and gaining experience of working as part of a team. Many commercial sets are now accustomed to more senior people being utilised on domestic and international secondments.

Another matter to consider for the seconded barrister, aside from building relationships within the firm, is the opportunity to establish firm and profitable working relationships. For example, a recent secondment project allowed a junior from a tier 3 commercial set to work alongside a senior and junior both ranked at tier 1 from ‘Magic Circle’ sets; they were able to forge an excellent relationship with leaders in their specialised field while gaining invaluable experience.

Benefits to chambers

With international instructions becoming a key focus for chambers, there has never been more pressure to forge relationships with international clients and for many sets, secondments are seen as a viable platform to create such introductions. Chambers, as a whole, are encouraging members at all levels who wish to expand their international practice to embrace secondments allowing them to begin to build relationships with top international law firms.

Managing client relationships is key and having an individual or a group of barristers on secondment allows the chambers as a whole to build on these, with members undertaking lengthy secondments when necessary. Chambers find that this affords them the perfect opportunity to build on these alliances and cross-sell different practice areas within the seconded firm. This can, in turn, result in new workstreams for other members who might specialise in that particular practice area.

Being able to offer secondees to clients in times of need may now be seen as part of the service among the most successful sets of chambers. The nature of the instructions and relationships between barristers and their clients is becoming increasingly fluid. Sometimes a secondment is needed on an ad hoc basis, where the client requires urgent assistance on a particular case, one example being to assist in preparation in the run-up to a trial in which chambers is instructed. At other times secondments are part of a client’s longer-term structural approach.

Whether you are reading this as a barrister, a clerk or a client, we hope you will agree that these temporary placements represent a win/win for all those concerned.