You co-own and run one of the UK’s largest barristers’ chambers with two subsidiary businesses, one of which is the fastest growing direct access portal in the country. To what do you credit your success?
Energy, a commitment to long hours and keeping the vision alive, the outstanding support we have from Clerksroom staff and barristers, industry-leading collaborators, inspirational peers along the way, a patient wife and gut feelings.
I’ve always worked hard; I failed at school so had little choice. My father told me to learn a trade and I was lucky enough to be offered a job as a junior clerk by Tom Parslife (RIP) at 2 COR. I was then fortunate to work with Nick Salt at 3 Serjeants Inn, one of the best clerks I’ve ever known. Then Robert Allen at Atkin and Terry Creathorn at Deans Court. Working with these great people prepared me for taking a role as a senior clerk.
I started Clerksroom 15 years ago with two barristers and our mission was always very simple. We just wanted to work with pleasant people in a pleasant environment and focus on the service we provide, not getting bogged down with politics or committees. Over the years, this freedom and focus on outcomes has allowed us to create and invest in new technologies, unique, Bar Mutual Indemnity Fund approved contracts with leading national firms and engage our clients in ways other chambers cannot. This is because others continue to be held back by politics and weak decision-making structures.
You continue to be at the forefront of innovation at the Bar and for the delivery of legal services. Where do you see your focus being for the next five years?
A very tricky question to answer as innovation is tough. When you do something different, people don’t know why you are doing it and wonder if it will work. Then, when you get it right and people begin to understand what you are doing and why, it’s not innovative any more.
You also get more risk averse as your business grows so remaining innovative is a constant battle. That’s why it’s important to remember why you’re doing it – to continue to meet clients’ needs sustainably (in a changing marketplace) and to fulfil your own plans for the business. Never ‘innovate’ for the sake of it; it’s not strategic and initiatives may fail in the long-run.
Planning the next five years is easy; after that it gets tricky to predict. We have a five-year rolling plan that mainly focuses on online systems development and integration. We invest heavily in our own bespoke online systems. Giving our solicitor clients access to our systems, case collaboration, carefully thought through diary access and detailed reporting options are key. We actually spend a considerable amount of time trying to simplify many of our processes.
Direct access is increasingly becoming less of a ‘dirty phrase’. What lessons have you learned and what advice would you give to barristers?
My advice is not just to barristers, it’s to clerks as well. We created Clerksroom Direct because we came to the view that public access work was a nightmare to administer – it was not cost effective and of no real interest in our plans going forward. We needed a new system, a re-think of the traditional way we offer legal services via chambers. After a long consultation period and lengthy discussions with the key stakeholders including the Bar Standards Board (which was extremely helpful), the opportunity to create a new system from a blank sheet of paper meant we could focus on the positives, not the negatives. The advice I would give is to consider the work as pretty much unlimited and it comes with pre-payment of your fees. If a firm of solicitors offered that, would you be interested?
How do you see technological advances increasingly assisting the Bar?
I have a slightly different perspective on this question because I feel there is ample technology out there now. Our difficulty is actually getting the technologies to talk to each other. We are working hard to bring our software, databases, history, online systems, telephones and data into a central environment that allows us to analyse the way we work, the work itself and the value against acquisition cost from marketing, such as Google PPC. Browser based systems that talk to each other are key to what we want to achieve over the next five years. This includes harnessing (for those who know what we’re talking about) the value of ‘big data’ analysis.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve been given?
Always remember why you started your business and stick with those key principles.
How do you like to spend your time away from the office?
I think this is a trick question! I run Clerksroom, an online business so my office is in my phone and laptop. I’m never away from the office. Joking aside, I’m fortunate to be able to operate from anywhere so I can take my office away and I take full advantage of that. My wife and I can travel extensively via our motorhome and stay online. I find the 4G coverage best in France so I go there as often as I can…I took up marathon running in 2011 as I was offered a place in the London Marathon for Headway, the brain injury charity. I’m now an ambassador for Headway and have just completed my 10th marathon fundraising for them. Dublin in October will be my marathon number 11!
Stephen Ward was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP