The barrister: Rhys Taylor

A couple of years back I had too much on my plate. In addition to my regular instructions, I was heavily involved in an interdisciplinary project (the Pension Advisory Group) and I am not very good at saying no to requests as they come along. More fool me, you may say. A friend of mine is a parliamentarian and had resolved their workload issues by engaging a personal assistant to run their office. Over a weekend catch-up, as I shared my work woes, they suggested that I try engaging a personal assistant myself.

Having asked around, it did not seem as if many members of the Bar have PAs. Different chambers will provide different levels of administrative and research support. Clerks are always incredibly busy and are not there to hold counsel’s hand with the constellation of issues which are properly in the lap of the barrister.

Working from multiple locations (home, chambers, court) I was also unclear how I could find a PA who could ‘be alongside me’ in a practical sense. The idea of a PA intrigued me. Once I was set to go paperless (about a year before the April 2020 lockdown) the final piece of jigsaw fell into place. What I needed was a virtual assistant (VA).

I had a personal recommendation to try Eden Assistants, which is a company that provides VA services for clients. It is a professional matchmaker.

We had a long discussion about my GDPR requirements and how it would work. I was then introduced to Charlotte, a possible VA, in a Zoom call (or was it Skype back them?). While I thought I was assessing her suitability to work with me, in fact she was also assessing my suitability to work with her. Happily, we struck it off and Charlotte was engaged.

There followed a short introduction to the strange goings on of a barrister and what I called ‘bundleology’. In no time at all Charlotte, who has absolutely first-rate IT and Office skills, was better at this than I had ever been.

One of the hardest parts for me in setting this up was letting go of certain aspects of the work I do. This might come more easily to our solicitor colleagues more used to working in a team structure, but it took a few deep breaths before I stepped over the precipice and banished my inner control freak.

Charlotte and I live and work about 200 miles apart, but we keep in regular contact via WhatsApp and email. She knows my practice so well that I can simply send a message asking for ‘Can you make up Smith for tomorrow afternoon’ and she knows what I mean.

Charlotte assists with organising my bundles. So, whenever I start my work, I have a properly OCRed, indexed and flagged bundle. I also have assistance with numerous other tasks relating to Microsoft Office functions, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint, proofing and transcribing. With a firmly established working relationship, as things come along which I might not have time to do, Charlotte steps into the breach.

Charlotte does not work for me full time and has other clients. This means we have established a working pattern which respects and accommodates the other’s pattern of work. We understand how the other works and have figured out how we can work best together. I think of Charlotte as working with me, rather than working for me.

I cannot commend a VA highly enough. It has transformed the way I work and has freed me up to focus on the things that I can do best and really want to do, without being distracted from tasks which Charlotte can do better than me.

This is hardly revelatory stuff. Most other sectors would have support staff in place for senior professionals. It is astonishing what we, as self-employed barristers, are willing to treat as part of our daily tasks.

A VA is, of course, tax deductible. The costs will vary according to how much you call upon your VA. I would liken it to the costs of your car PCP – it’s horses for courses and will come in different shapes and sizes for each of us.

His virtual assisant: Charlotte Frank

When I have introductory meetings with new prospective clients, it is always with an open mind and, with over 20 years’ corporate PA experience, I am rarely daunted by the asks of a new client. That said, part of being a VA, more specifically than an in-house PA, is the scope of work that may be required from a client. The common theme, however, is the driving force behind the decision to invest in hiring a VA – too much to do and not enough time.

When Rhys and I spoke, he explained that he was looking for help with ‘bundling’ and, while I wasn’t familiar with the process, I knew that I’d be able to pick it up quickly enough. Rhys had a vision of becoming paperless, more efficient and less stressed, all against a backdrop of mountains of lever arch files, long hours and endless admin. It was a big dream, but his enthusiasm and belief in the benefits were infectious and soon we were signing GDPR agreements and getting the wheels in motion.

A ‘normal’ case for Rhys will involve me receiving instructions via WhatsApp voice notes (Rhys has learnt some important technological lessons from me along the way!) and I get cracking. I start by preparing the files – locating where they are stored in our secure shared drive, creating a Casedo file (Casedo is a bespoke legal reader, document organiser and bundle generator), converting any non-PDF files – then let Adobe run the OCR function until it spits out a number of bundle-ready files.

I then slice and dice the files as per Rhys’s standing requirements and upload them to Casedo. The majority of the process is fairly straightforward, but most cases have a unique element that can often leave me pondering how best to set out the information in the most logical and helpful way for Rhys. Basically, I am trying to get the papers set up so that he can ‘hit the ground running’ when he starts reading.

The requests I receive from Rhys are also sprinkled with other tasks such as PowerPoint production, Word formatting, Excel spreadsheets and ad-hoc tasks as and when they come in. It is always very interesting and Rhys’s supportive nature and temperament has absolutely helped us to develop a great working relationship. He is very clear on instructions and deadlines and, after just over a couple of years now, we have become a very well-oiled machine!

And their professional matchmaker: Grace Robinson

Rhys was anxious to hammer down all the GDPR implications of creating such a VA relationship. We spent some time developing a suite of documents that covered all the GDPR bases. His chambers at The 36 Group were supportive of the idea and their Chief Operating Officer, Rowan Cafful, contributed to and assisted in discussions about what would work from a chambers’ perspective. In fact, Rowan has now also engaged Eden VAs to assist with some of his admin tasks.

Both Charlotte and I now have ‘Briefed’ GDPR accreditation. We have barrister GDPR and particular barrister requirements for sensitivity at the forefront of our approach.

Since working with Rhys we have begun working with more barristers. We assist them with inbox and diary management, documents, bundling and more. 

Many new clients come to us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted with the amount of admin jobs they have. After working with one of our VAs they describe having a physical weight lifted from their shoulders.

In the business world having a virtual assistant is advocated as a valuable investment to keep entrepreneurs in their ‘zone of genius’. Often time-consuming tasks don’t actually require us to do them. Having a VA frees time to concentrate on core work that makes the most impact.

Our team come from PA, executive assistant or administrator backgrounds, often with years of experience in the corporate world. They enjoy working virtually as it allows for flexibility, improved lifestyle and no commute! Having worked as a VA myself, I found it rewarding as you can play a vital role in supporting a successful business or career and each day is different working with a variety of industries. Naturally, the trust and relationship builds over time and clients then give us more responsibility. Being able to outsource tasks that were once a burden, allows our clients to focus on what they should be doing, enjoy their work again and the reason they embarked on it in the first place.