In my years of leading marketing communication for large law firms, one of the most difficult moments was always the day when the legal directories came out. I would invariably arrive to find a queue of partners lined up to complain that they were not receiving the recognition they deserved, and demanding action.

Many barristers, no doubt, feel the same sense of disappointment as directory rankings are revealed, wondering what they could have done differently to gain the recognition they feel they deserve. Some blame the directories’ researchers, while others blame those preparing their submissions.

The surprising truth

The sad news is that, while directories rankings are not an exact science and occasionally evaluations may not be fair, it’s rare to find mistakes. The teams at Chambers and Legal 500 put a lot of effort into researching the market and gaining feedback, and they are rightly careful about basing their assessments on the facts.

So, if you have slaved over your submissions and put together a list of impressive cases that you have been involved in, why are you not being recognised?

Surprisingly, researchers and editors on the directories reveal that poor rankings are most commonly due to negative feedback from referees. What is staggering about this is that the referees used are given to the directories by the barristers and chambers themselves. Presumably, these are the contacts that those submitting think are most favourable. If their best clients say bad things, the researchers reason, what would others say?

But how can brilliant legal minds, trained to thoroughly question and analyse the facts, fail to identify something as fundamental and simple as whether their clients and instructing solicitors actually like working with them?

Identifying the root cause

The root cause, I think, is not only the potential confusion about who ‘the client’ is (eg the claimant or the instructing solicitor). It is also not just because there is a natural tendency among us all to believe what we want to believe. The most significant reason, in my view, is that lawyers and barristers are trained to give answers and argue their case, rather than seeking and actively listening to others’ views.

Indeed, most instructing solicitors say that if barristers ask about the service they provide, it is not presented as an opportunity to identify improvements; instead, barristers are usually looking for compliments that will further boost their egos.

In other words, barristers who are not used to reviewing the service they deliver, may not ask the right questions in the right way. Meanwhile, instructing solicitors or clients who may not want to have tricky conversations during matters that are already stressful, are not likely to share dissatisfaction or learning that they do not think will be welcomed. Often solicitors say they do not even feel that they are being treated as a client, but rather as an intermediary or observer of the process.

A failure of client listening

This points to a failure of the client feedback process, and this is much more important than addressing dissatisfaction with individual rankings. Robust and effective client listening is critical to enhancing and improving client relationships, and to identifying better ways of working.

Indeed, for many major law firms, client listening is now at the heart of the way in which they are responding and adapting to pressures to transform their services. What they are finding is that, as standardised processes, technology and data increasingly influence the way legal services are delivered, basic service attributes like responsiveness and clarity of communication are becoming even more important than the quality of the legal advice given.

How to fix it

Although some barristers might worry it would undermine their independent status and effectively treat them as an employee, I would argue that it is for chambers, not individual barristers, to put the mechanisms in place to make sure they understand how instructing solicitors and clients feel about the service they receive.

As a result, despite the cultural difficulties for the Bar, now is the time for chambers to consider introducing client listening programmes as part of the way they operate.

What good would look like

If and when they do, it is likely to involve a mixture of quantitative, questionnaire-based feedback, and qualitative interviews. So that respondents feel they can be honest, the process should apply to all clients and be independent of the barrister involved in the relationship. Those conducting interviews need to understand the legal market and the complexities of the relationships within the Bar to avoid participants having to explain the background during the conversation.

Those delivering the feedback also need to have the gravitas and the credibility to give honest feedback about what they have been told, along with the diplomacy and tact to help barristers hear difficult messages. They need to help create the positive, proactive mindset to help barristers focus on addressing concerns rather than allowing the conversation to become negative or blaming. Otherwise, the process will not drive the changes needed.

Driving innovation

I am sure that if chambers put such a process in place and made it work, they would not only get closer to key contacts and understand how barristers within the set are performing. It would also enable them to identify ways of delivering a better service to instructing solicitors and the ultimate clients, so that barristers could begin to play a fuller role in driving legal innovation.

Of course, there are other barriers for chambers looking to transform they way they deliver legal services. Some would argue that the nature of barristers’ work is less susceptible to data analysis, process improvement and technology than other areas of the law. Others would say that the relative size of chambers’ businesses makes it harder for them to invest in digitisation. In addition, the fact that barristers generally work with instructing solicitors and may not have much direct contact with their ultimate client may make driving change more difficult. There is some truth in these constraints.

However, given barristers’ position in the market and their position as independent advisers, I would argue that they are well placed to identify better ways of working. However, they will only be able to do that effectively if they fully understand what their clients, instructing solicitors and the other stakeholders in the legal process all want and need.

The question to ask yourself

So, if you are one of those barristers who has sat forlornly looking at your directory ranking wondering where it could possibly have gone wrong, perhaps you should ask yourself whether you really do know what your clients think about you.

If you do not have an independent way of verifying your impressions, I would argue that you cannot be sure what clients really think. Asking clients directly yourself won’t necessarily give you the answers you need, so getting someone else involved is essential.

The opportunity

Doing this will invariably enable you to pick better referees and drive up your rankings. But this also presents a much greater opportunity. Any chambers that introduces a robust approach to client listening and uses the feedback as a way of driving improvements is likely to steal a march on those that do not.

In the end, delivering better service always creates great client loyalty and, on top of this, listening, understanding and empathising with clients is the first step in identifying potential innovations.

If that is correct, why wouldn’t you want your set to be among those that lead the way?