Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention... is more disgraceful than the fact that we do now know how either to give or to receive benefits.' 
Seneca, De Beneficiis

There weren’t barristers in the days of Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, the Roman statesman, imperial adviser and Stoic philosopher, but his formal training in rhetoric, his renowned skills in senatorial oratory, his inquisitive and often controversial mind, his moral philosophy, and the contradictory themes of his dramatic writing would surely have made this influential, highly complex and yet far from perfect individual an ideal ‘Star of the Bar’ and, later, almost certainly of the Supreme Court, the House of Lords and the media.

So, if the modern Luke Seneck QC were to be head of chambers, partway up his stellar ascent, I reckon it would be fascinating to listen into the annual discussion of pay and benefits for staff in his set, and the issues of reciprocity, leadership and forming bonds.

In the first part of Working without Benefits… (Counsel March 2022), we examined some key issues that employees in professional services want to be considered regarding pay, benefits and related terms of employment, how chambers might approach this strategically, and two benefits for which minimum standards are mandated by law: pensions and holidays. Some of the data came from a survey of chambers I conducted in 2020.

We’ll conclude here by looking at the principal types of optional employee benefits that are available, so that they might be considered by heads of chambers and management committees when determining the next staff pay round.

Having some help with the costs of medical treatment is considered a substantial benefit by employees. The most comprehensive benefit (and the most expensive for employers) is private medical insurance (PMI). Some chambers may have group schemes for barristers or be part of a larger group scheme; it is possible in almost every case to add staff to such schemes and the costs are therefore considerably reduced compared to those of personal insurance. As well as being a benefit for the employee, PMI also benefits the employer by enabling the employee to avoid long waiting lists for treatment, including operations, and to schedule appointments at convenient times; this means that the time the employee is absent from work or operating at a significantly reduced capacity can be substantially reduced, resulting in less cost wastage for the employer. This becomes an increasingly important consideration with the most senior staff.

An encouraging number (though still well in the minority) of sets now provide staff with PMI, although these tend to be London-based, and generally ‘privately funded’ sets. However, if a mixed-practice, out-of-London set with 51-75% public funding can provide its staff with PMI (which it does), others might want to take a closer look at why they don’t.

The next stage is to extend PMI to employee’s family members, something increasingly common in other areas of professional services. Again, doing this often enables employers to manage better the absence of their staff to care for their family.

A cheaper option to provide a modicum of medical-related financial support is the healthcare cash plan (HCP). This provides an employee with a modest amount of money each year (on a scale according to the cost of the plan) towards the costs of medical consultations, diagnostic tests, optical and dental care and treatments such as physiotherapy and osteopathy. This does not seem to be a common benefit in chambers, though some sets provide both PMI and HCP. The survey showed that over half of chambers provide no healthcare benefits to their staff.

Just one set that took part met the three desired criteria from the professional-services survey (quoted in part one of this series) of offering all staff: more than the minimum holiday entitlement; pension contributions above the minimum; and PMI. While this is something for that set to emphasise strongly in its recruiting material, it hardly puts the Bar, in this respect, among the ‘best employers’.

One form of benefit that has come sharply to the fore in recent years is the employee assistance programme (EAP). This is an employer-paid scheme that enables employees to contact an independent adviser on a confidential basis so that the employee can discuss issues that may be troubling them, such as financial worries, problems with their mental health or concerns about their employment. EAPs will typically offer a range of support, including face-to-face, telephone and online. EAPs do vary in what they offer from one provider to another, and it is worth comparing what you might already have with what else is available.

Many chambers might not be aware that they already provide staff with an EAP. Many business/employers’ insurance policies now include an EAP as standard and individual membership of the Legal Practice Management Association (LPMA) or Institute of Barristers’ Clerks (IBC) (see below) provides automatic membership of the Wellbeing at the Bar Assistance Programme.

Given the clear and increasing relevance of supporting employees’ sense of wellbeing, their concern over the work-life balance and uncertainty about what the post-pandemic future might comprise in the sense of working practices, it seems highly advisable for all employers to ensure that their staff have access to the services of an EAP.

Most chambers pay their staff more than statutory sick pay (SSP) for sickness absence. However, at about £20 a day, SSP is not exactly a generous baseline, and, across the whole Bar, I would question why any set is only paying SSP.

Life insurance, especially when organised on a group policy, is a cheap benefit, and can be seen by employees as a valuable financial safety net for their family in the event of what may well be the main breadwinner’s untimely death. Few chambers provide this for their staff; I would recommend others to consider it.

Income protection insurance can be viewed as more of a benefit for the employer than the employee. This provides (after a period of, usually, around one to three months) the bulk of the salary of the employee for the duration of the time they are unable to work due to injury or illness. This can be especially useful for chambers when, for example, a senior member of staff has a significant (but temporary) injury or illness. The staff member can continue to be paid, by means of the insurance, the equivalent of their salary while the chambers can use its existing salary provision to pay for temporary staff cover until such time as the employee can return to work. For this reason, many employers consider this form of insurance for key personnel, but my survey indicated that only 20% of chambers provide this.

Critical illness cover pays an employee a single tax-free lump sum should they suffer permanent disability or serious illness, which is, again, a valuable financial safety net for an employee and their family. I am not aware of any chambers that provides this cover.

Interest-free travel loans are provided by most chambers and the cycle-to-work loan/salary-sacrifice scheme is also operated by many. Given the almost negligible costs of these schemes to the employer, I do not understand why they are not offered by 100%.

A few chambers offer their staff free or discounted gym membership, and I know of one set that has a gym onsite. Chambers should approach local gyms to ask about corporate discounts; they are often available at no cost to the employer, as the gym is seeking the advertising and subsequent membership it gets from the employees and barristers.

One set reported it now gives its staff a ‘birthday holiday’ on top of the normal annual allowance; this seems at first glance a very effective way to spin simply giving everyone an extra day’s leave, though I’m sure there are negotiations to be had with staff who were born on a bank holiday as well as difficulties for those working with someone who claims as a new form of employer-defined birthright their taking a day off every year on, for example, 24 December, 31 December or 2 January, which their colleagues have to cover. Another benefit that is becoming increasingly popular in other businesses is the ‘charity day’, a paid day off during which the employee takes part in or supports any charitable activity they wish. As many chambers do not, anecdotally, make considerable donations to charity, this is a way to enhance your corporate Environment, Social & Governance credentials as well as encouraging all your staff contribute to society.

I don’t expect that a company car scheme is going to take off as a widespread chambers’ benefit, but I understand it has been introduced somewhere.

There are many other possible benefits, such as childcare provision, long-service awards, and minor cash bonuses. All can add greatly to the employees’ regard for their employer and, conversely, their absence can detract from it. Big across many businesses in 2021 and 2022 have been home office expenses (beyond the basics, that you’d hope the employer would pick up anyway – by the way, I presume all chambers have carried out their home-working risk assessments for all relevant staff, as required under HSE regulations…) and setting up employee resource groups or ‘affinity groups. Most chambers might be too small to make these really work, but the concept of establishing support groups of some kind must be worth considering, and they don’t just need to consist of chambers’ staff – involve your barristers as well.

While not strictly a benefit of employment, a substantial enticement for employment, especially for more senior roles, can be the contractual notice and redundancy benefits beyond the statutory minimum, should employment be terminated. Equally, employers should review contractual notice when promoting staff; is your Senior Clerk, who joined chambers pushing trolleys 20 years ago, still on the one-month employee’s notice of his original contract? This could be a problem in succession planning.

I’ve already mentioned training, in the first article, but a related consideration is making provision, in the form of a financial contribution or additional paid or unpaid leave/sabbatical, for an employee to undertake training or development that is not specifically relevant to the employee’s role but which the employee views as important for their own broader career and life progression.

The IBC and LPMA are well known and highly regarded as advisory and informal representational bodies for those who work in and manage chambers. The views of the IBC and LPMA executives have been sought both ad hoc, in specific projects and in consultations by all major bodies in the legal sector (including the Bar Council, the Bar Standards Board, the Legal Services Board, the Legal Aid Agency, the Ministry of Justice, the Legal Ombudsman, the Specialist Bar Associations and Circuits and legal charities) and IBC and LPMA representatives sit on all the principal Bar Council Committees, with the chairs attending the General Management Committee at the invitation of the Chair of the Bar.

Membership of either organisation provides chambers’ employees with the opportunity for information, access to training and other professional development through networking. Many management issues in chambers and for the Bar as a whole have been successfully resolved thanks to shared contacts and information through these bodies. Chambers benefit from their staff being members. Every set of chambers should be encouraging its staff to join one or other organisation and should be paying their annual subscriptions. These are just £50 a year for the LPMA, and start at £15 for the IBC, rising to £145 for senior clerks.

‘The staff are angry that the company tennis courts are always busy…’

While barristers’ chambers are perhaps a very long way from offering fertility benefits (which are now considered a ‘must-have’ rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ by some companies looking to offer inclusive support to their employees), chambers should be seriously examining the range and level of staff benefits that they offer, thinking about what benefits mean to a potential employee and recognising that chambers’ recruitment is becoming more of a seller’s market at the moment than a buyer’s one. (The question being asked the most of recruiters by candidates for jobs in chambers at the moment is what flexible-working arrangements there are.) Increasingly, the best candidate chooses or rejects the employer, not the other way round.

Simply because the employer is, in effect, a large group of self-employed barristers who have always had to fund all their own financial/medical/social support does not mean that their employees should be towards the bottom of the benefits league table for professional-services staff, especially when compared to support staff in the rest of the legal sector. So, shock your senior clerk or chambers director and ask them to bring chambers’ remuneration strategy to the next management committee meeting.

As Luke Seneck QC would say, benefits can be reciprocal.