‘I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.’
Maya Angelou

I often recall a discussion at a dinner for various heads of chambers to which I was invited in error when I first started working in the world of chambers’ management. (I fessed up as soon as I got the invite, but the senior partner of the host law firm told me it would be fun to come along anyway. It was also the only time I ever had ‘QC’ as post-nominals on an envelope.) At one point, we were discussing remuneration in general across the legal sector and a solicitor mentioned employee pensions. One head of chambers, relatively young and new in the role but otherwise displaying management characteristics from the Jurassic period, spluttered ‘Why on Earth would we want to pay for our clerks’ pensions?’ The solicitors present all looked a little surprised but, of course, they had lived as employees.

A large number of barristers, on the contrary, have never had the ‘luxury’ of employment and a monthly salary, but have grown up eating what they kill (or, more accurately, taking home from chambers to consume with their brood between about 70 and 85% of what they individually kill, from which they then need to allow the taxman to eat his fill) and any provision for holidays, sickness, retirement, personal development and the like has to come from whatever scraps are left. That’s what you call the joy of self-employment which you, dear reader, chose as a career.

I’ve no doubt you chose it, and/or continue to choose it, partly because of the benefits that self-employment brings, despite the often disappointing downsides. I won’t list them all, but being able to take home (pre-tax) the above-mentioned 70-85% of what you personally kill (or bill) is something that most solicitors would bite off their arm for – or, at least, being lawyers, would try to bite off your arm for.

Anyway, the subject of voluntary employers’ pension contributions for chambers’ staff was overtaken by HMG’s implementation of workplace pensions in 2015, even though, as I explain below, there are still pension issues that chambers might want to consider. But the Bar has always lagged way, way behind the rest of the professional-services sector in providing benefits other than a basic salary to its employees. That was fine for the business while you were relying on your senior clerk to recruit 16-year-old boys (never girls) from Essex as junior clerks, of whom the very talented would emerge to become the well-paid senior clerks of the future. But everyone involved in the Bar, including the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC) and Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA), would acknowledge gratefully that this clichéd image has (almost!) disappeared. The Bar recognises that it now has to compete with many other sectors for talent in a variety of skills for its ‘support workforce’, even at the most junior level, but that recognition brings with it the possibly uncomfortable reality of modern terms of employment.

I conducted a survey of chambers in 2021 that asked about salary and other staff benefits. Thirty nine sets contributed to the survey, which constituted a reasonable response rate of 21% of those invited nationwide. (A few sets which chose not to take part gave their reasons, which varied in essence from ‘Such surveys tend to be used only to justify reducing staff salaries’ to ‘Such surveys tend to be used only to justify increasing staff salaries’. I don’t know how many heads of chambers were consulted about whether or not to participate.) As promised, the data on salaries remains confidential to those who took part, but the general data on other benefits will be of particular interest to chambers and their staff as we approach the end of the tax year, which will also be the time for annual negotiation of salaries and benefits for many chambers. Chambers might also want to look more broadly at their remuneration strategy. (What, you don’t have one? This should form part of chambers’ written HR strategy… Oh!)

First, a word about key employment trends in professional services. The legal sector and the Bar as part of that will want to look both within its own organisations and also to the wider professional-services sector for indications of key trends.

Pay transparency is being cited increasingly frequently as important for professional-services employees, with some surveys showing that over 70% want transparency over how their organisation sets pay levels, pay rises and bonuses. However, typically more than a third of employers say their organisation is not consistently transparent in this. I imagine that the proportion at the Bar would be much higher.

The gender pay gap is not something that, to my knowledge, has ever been analysed in respect of chambers’ staff. It is perhaps time that this aspect of equality and diversity started to be examined in detail.

The pandemic has demonstrated the value for businesses of having a culture of upskilling its staff and providing a properly funded training and development programme. Not only providing the training that staff need for their current role but also giving them the opportunity to expand their capabilities and enabling cross-training between roles have been of great benefit to organisations that have had to bear sudden gaps due to illness or the need temporarily to downsize operations. Upskilling (and reskilling) is also a fundamentally positive employment culture welcomed by employees, which furthermore often involves a smaller financial commitment than employing and training a new worker. Does your chambers have a regular and adequate staff-training and development budget?

COVID-19 also brought into sharp relief the concept of key personnel and their replacement; the list of roles that many businesses consider to be ‘key’ will have expanded. However, having to manage the departure of a key member of staff is nothing new. Does your chambers have specific, existing plans for how to react when a key person says they are leaving (or gets hit by the proverbial bus), or is the reaction usually a surprised ‘so, what should we do now’? Do you budget realistically for staff recruitment costs? Do you plan and budget for contractors or consultants to fill gaps temporarily?

Perhaps above all else, physical and mental wellbeing, the work-life balance and the linked issues of flexible, remote and hybrid working have come to the fore as the principal concerns for both employees and employers that must be addressed in the immediate future. This is outside the scope of this article, but I suggest a review needs to be done ‘Bar-wide’, as it will otherwise be incomplete and not provide appropriate answers to what is a highly complex organisational and leadership challenge which the Bar has not experienced before. This strikes me as a perfect project for collaboration between the Bar Council, the IBC and LPMA. (‘One Bar’, remember?)

So, while you’re thinking on how to start discussions on remuneration levels, here’s how to kick off your strategy:

  • Devise a written remuneration strategy (as part of an overall HR strategy), and be transparent with all employees about how pay and bonuses are set and benefits are determined.
  • Consult on and devise a training and development programme for your staff.
  • Consult on long-term remote-working and hybrid-working practices.
  • Demonstrate to your staff that you recognise the importance of wellbeing and a reasonable work-life balance.
  • Confirm that your overall HR strategy is properly funded.

Also, during COVID, a major concern among employees in all sectors has been uncertainty over job security and future opportunities. What have chambers’ leaders done to communicate their reassurance (or indeed otherwise) to their own staff?

The benefit of benefits

I don’t intend to tell you how to set salaries or bonuses, but I do suggest that chambers’ management committees should consider more closely the range of possible employee benefits.

As already mentioned, the world of chambers has been slow to implement comprehensive benefits packages for staff compared to any other part of the professional-services sector, which puts chambers’ staff at a potential disadvantage compared to employees in other businesses and could limit the possibilities of recruiting the best staff. Surveys in the professional-services sector now regularly report that the top three benefits most important to employees when considering a new role are:

  • over 28 days of paid annual leave (ie more than the legal minimum, equating to 20 days plus eight days’ bank holidays);
  • pension provision above the legal minimum; and
  • health insurance or private medical cover.

There is a wide range of potential employee benefits currently offered by businesses and many are relatively inexpensive. The major advantages to the employer of offering a good range and level of benefits are noted as:

  • improving employee morale;
  • reducing stress and associated staff absences;
  • boosting productivity;
  • setting the tone for the business’s internal values and ethos;
  • reducing staff turnover; and
  • helping to recruit top talent.

The basics start with the pension. All employers must now offer a workplace pension scheme to those employees within the qualifying criteria. Questions you might want to ask about your chambers include:

  • Does chambers also offer the pension to those who do not meet the criteria, because of age or level of income?
  • If someone opts out of the workplace pension scheme (perhaps because they cannot afford to make their own contribution at the minimum level), does chambers offer to pay the same percentage into a private pension scheme, or does chambers just ‘pocket the money’?
  • Does chambers offer more than the legal minimum percentage?
  • Does chambers pay the percentage on all of the employee salary, or does it restrict its payment to the proportion of the ‘upper limit for qualifying earnings’ (just over £50K in 2021/22)?

The survey I conducted showed that nearly four out of every five sets make the minimum percentage pension contribution, and two out of every five also impose a cap on the qualifying earnings for this percentage.

In the UK, almost all people working a five-day week must receive a minimum of 28 days’ annual holiday. Bank holidays do not have to be given as paid leave, but most chambers choose to include bank holidays as part of a worker’s statutory annual leave. As there are currently eight public holidays in England (there are nine in 2022, with the additional Platinum Jubilee bank holiday), this means that the statutory minimum for someone who works five days per week is a further 20 days’ annual leave.

Many sets grant a range of days, starting at a lower figure for new joiners and increasing the number according to years’ service (up to a stated limit) and/or seniority; a minority of chambers have a set number of days’ leave for all staff.

Overall, chambers’ staff seem to do well for holidays, with a fair majority starting at over 20 days (in addition to bank holidays), several starting at 25 days, and generally ranging up to between 25 and 30 days. The principal staff (senior clerk/chambers director, etc) tend to receive 30 days, and some get more. But don’t just blindly accept the ‘we’ve always done it like this’ position. If you give extra days’ holiday to staff who have been with you longer, how is this fair to the new ‘lateral hire’ from another clerks’ room working alongside a colleague with the same job but more holidays? (And would this be more complicated if all the longer-serving colleagues are men and the newbie is a woman?) However, when considering every aspect of the highly variable demands of working for chambers at different levels, is it really equitable to give every employee the same number of days off?

Most importantly, are holidays actually ‘days off’ for your staff, or do you expect some of them to continue to read their emails and text messages, answer phone calls, keep up to date with work-related social media and news in the sector? I reckon, at some point, that just becomes an obligation of being a manager or another critical role in the business. I believe it is both pragmatic, justifiable and, above all, helpful, to have a written protocol stating when barristers and employees at different levels should be reasonably expected to respond to communication of different types outside normal working hours or on holiday. (I was asked to write such a protocol for a corporate PR company when I introduced BlackBerry to the business in 2003 – rather than being seen as an infringement on people’s free time, it was seen as liberating and reassuring.)

Whatever, the expectation of dedication to the business needs to be recognised, and that’s not just achieved through salaries and bonuses. In next month’s concluding article, we’ll examine the principal types of optional employee benefits available in order to give you further ideas for your boardroom discussions.

But please don’t forget one of the best and cheapest employee benefits: the occasional ‘well done and thank you!’ 

Part two of 'Working without benefits' will appear in the April 2022 issue of Counsel.