A little while ago, we produced a short video for a client’s website. It was a relatively straightforward affair featuring people talking through their track record in a particular area of expertise, interspersed with artful shots of the organisation’s premises and some imagery related to the subject at hand. While a good video of its type, nothing about its contents or production was particularly newsworthy – except for the fact that it was the first video we had ever produced for a barristers’ chambers. And, as far as we can tell, it was the first of its kind produced by what some term a ‘magic circle set’.

Why chambers haven’t evolved their marketing methods

As one barrister recently pointed out to me, barristers were not permitted to carry business cards (or, some say, business cards mentioning their set) until the 1970s.

Chambers have come a long way since then in terms of how they proactively seek out instructions from the market. But marketing at the Bar, and the commercial Bar especially, remains decidedly low-key. Some might point to the Bar’s traditional leanings as an explanation, but I am doubtful that this is the sole cause; today's sets are often cutting-edge businesses, with top-quality IT and a strong understanding of modern technological tools.

Yet while chambers do not typically lag behind law firms in the kind of technology they use internally, when it comes to communicating externally, solicitors seem streets ahead. Perhaps at the root of this difference is the Bar’s unique working practices. In private practice, the partnership model means that if one individual benefits from new instructions or clients then, in theory, everybody collectively benefits. 

Different rules apply at a set of chambers. Sets may feel compelled to take a more democratic approach to marketing, steering clear of promoting particular members over others. This egalitarian approach may well make it harder to justify the use of video which, by its nature, will highlight individuals (unless a set is willing to invest the considerable time and expense in producing a video for each of its members).

Looking to law firms

Could chambers usefully look at how law firms are marketing themselves? In particular, how they try to sell themselves based on more than knowledge of legal processes. Osborne Clarke, for instance, has been enhancing its reputation in the tech sector by conducting research into consumers’ views of emerging technologies, like wearables. Mayer Brown is exploring the evolution of financial technology.

Video, in fact, seems like a very natural medium for chambers to market themselves. Due to the nature of their profession, barristers are far more comfortable ‘performing’ than the majority of solicitors. Aside from acting itself, it is hard to think of a profession more packed with confident, fluent speakers than advocacy.

Moreover, video is the most immediate and accessible way of getting information across of any kind. There is, of course, so much more that can be conveyed in speech which simply does not come across in print. Web users increasingly use YouTube to search for knowledge. Lawyers should not be immune to the changing ways in which we all take in information.

Marketing chambers with video

The video mentioned at the start of this article was a Fountain Court venture. After consulting with clients, the set’s leadership had concluded that cyber-fraud was an area of expertise with a substantial potential for growth and wanted a way to put this across to clients. ‘It was quite an unusual thing to do,’ says Paul Martenstyn, Fountain Court’s deputy senior clerk, ‘but we wanted to do something different. Something other than just putting together a normal pitch document.’

Solicitor clients, their in-house clients, and their clients’ clients have received the cyber-fraud video positively. Solicitors are pleased to be able to supply their clients with something more innovative than a bundle of CVs or a link to three barristers’ profiles on chambers’ websites.

The set had a clear strategy in mind – the pursuit of new cyberfraud instructions – and members trusted the clerks to execute this strategy in a way that would benefit the whole set, not just a few of them.

‘It all comes back to the relationship between the clerks and the members,’ he says. ‘It’s about letting the members know why we’re doing something. If there’s a strategy, people will buy into it. They trust us to act for the benefit of the whole chambers, not just individuals.’

Next generation of clients

Chambers are fortunate that their success does still hinge on a small and experienced group of purchasers understanding the importance of their track record, knowing their reputation and being recommended to barristers via word of mouth. Where they could be accused of lagging behind is communicating these very same facts to a wider audience in innovative ways. Surprisingly few chambers are engaged on social media and marketing materials can lack polish in comparison to those in most other sectors.

Moreover, international work is increasing. No matter how good a clerking term is, they cannot be awake at all hours to respond to calls from every time zone. A solid online presence, with compelling content delivered in a visually compelling way, can have a huge impact on delivering instructions from overseas. As chambers seek to realign how they communicate, they should also look to change what they communicate. In an increasingly competitive environment, why not strive to position themselves as business advisers useful to have around all the time, as opposed to simply being called in when there’s a transaction or deal to be done. The best way to evidence this is by sharing knowledge and expertise in an accessible and innovative way.

Modern consumers of their services have changed the way they make decisions. Barristers themselves are changing too. Martenstyn thinks chambers need to take a long-term view. ‘Chambers should be looking at the next generation. Generation Y may seem young today, but they are future barristers, partners and in-house counsel. Think about how they communicate: what are tomorrow’s partners and in-house counsel going to want out of their barristers? What are future juniors going to want out of their sets?’ The political obstacles to innovative marketing tools need to be overcome if chambers are to survive into the future, he adds. ‘Competition for work is increasingly intense. Post-Jackson, pricing is more challenging. The way other lawyers, especially in-house counsel, seek out and instruct barristers is changing, too.’

Oliver Scott, director at Overture (www.overture.london)