Taking care of business: recruiting a strong leader

What to look out for when hiring a chambers’ director? After all, sets’ survival will depend on the quality of their management during this time – perhaps more so now than ever before

By Nick Rees


For more than 25 years, the Bar has entrusted the running of its businesses (although use of the very term ‘business’ is disputed by some barristers) to management committees, senior clerks and chambers directors. Senior clerks have often made their way through the ranks before summitting, whereas chambers directors and CEOs have, historically, been drawn from the forces, law firms and professional services sectors. These roles all continue to evolve at pace.

The Bar has reached a point where most of its work, clients and its businesses have undergone significant change. From a previously rigid model based on clearly defined practice areas, capable of sitting harmoniously alongside one another in traditional and hierarchical business structures, and supplied by never-ending pipelines of well-paid directly referred work; to where we are now, with new practice areas, new jurisdictions, and working with (and actively encouraging) a broad range of clients who the Bar could not have imagined would be providing its business.

Change has brought with it the professionalisation of the operational functions of the Bar’s businesses. It has also led to a major investment of time and money in business development and client care. At the same time, increased competition for work, reductions in public funding, and the retention of work by solicitors have had a considerable effect. Factor in significant advances in technology, sky-high rents, often low occupancy rates and a ‘gloves off’ approach (by several sets) to lateral hiring where a key element of attraction is often the strength of the leadership function on offer. These are potential ingredients for the unprepared to face the perfect storm.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an alternative version of the perfect storm, one where strong leadership means everything. From the initial requirements to settle the anxieties of members and staff, managing enforced lockdown, dealing with reduced client instruction and non-functioning courts, navigating employee furlough, potential redundancies and wellbeing, to addressing the rapidly changing needs of the business and its clients, oh yes, and all from the comfort of your own home – there has never been a sterner test of the Bar’s leaders and its leadership function.

How to approach the recruitment process

With requirements varying so widely, there is no exact approach to the recruitment of senior leadership positions into the Bar. However, consideration of several key points is important, including identifying the key objectives of the business. A ‘more of the same’ approach for a successful chambers requires a different set of tactics to a ‘we really need major change and now’; who are our clients, how do they operate and will this change in the future? Clients’ requirements will, of course, vary but work will be hotly contested in the market, and all clients will demand high levels of service. Is the current structure fit for purpose and what resources are available within the business? Chambers may well have had three previous (successful) directors, but does proper consideration of the needs of the business and its client base warrant a different approach?

Many chambers will now be into their second or third incarnations of the director role, and some have moved in a different direction entirely. Having adopted flatter management structures, empowering and developing individuals from within the business (while also recognising gaps and recruiting accordingly), the market is witnessing a noticeable rise in the quality of internal candidates who have reacted positively to market changes by upskilling and recognising their own value.

Some larger sets and those with multiple practice areas may well find it more difficult to satisfy the needs of internal stakeholders. A new director or senior leader may, by the very experience that attracts some, be the very reason that others disengage. This should be acknowledged and can be addressed in some part by agreeing on the importance of key skills and competencies, affording greater benefit to the majority. These could include adding weight to leadership skills, professional development and communication style.

Candidates must be able to think, plan and execute strategically; be able to lead and motivate a range of people; be tuned into clients and their differing demands and expectations; and be able to interpret and ultimately act on these. Of course, they must also be capable of developing and winning business.

Bringing it home

Processes must be fair, robust and inclusive and led by a group empowered to make decisions and move quickly. Proper consideration of the business’s and clients’ requirements should be underwritten by flexibility. Recruitment committees often ask ‘what will candidates expect?’ – the best may have valuable experience gained in several sectors and will respond positively to processes which are professional, open and yet still feel personalised.

Many elements of the way the Bar now works, attracts clients and delivers business have changed, yet several fundamental pillars of its success remain in place. In an evolving and competitive market, where a chambers’ next senior leadership appointment will almost certainly have so much riding on it, and for many of the reasons identified, processes need to be inclusive, well-constructed and executed effectively in order to produce the best results.

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Nick Rees

Nick Rees is Managing Director of GRL Legal, an organisation that plays an instrumental role in major moves at the Bar and in law firms.