The pandemic has proved discriminatory towards barristers’ practices. Some have had a stellar year, some have taken a temporary dip and others have come to a grinding halt. If you’re considering your future, you may be asking yourself whether to continue in practice at the self-employed Bar. After all the effort expended to get there, you won’t want to give it all up lightly, but it is one of the options. The events of the last year constitute a market shock from which your practice could well recover in a few months. So before you throw in the towel, consider these five steps to help you get your practice back on track.

1: Be clear on the demand for your expertise

Like all service businesses, a barrister’s practice exists in a complex system of external factors which together determine whether there is demand for your expertise. After a significant world event, like a stock market crash or the pandemic, some practice areas will fade completely and new opportunities will arise. Continuing to hold yourself out as an expert in a practice area for which there is low current demand or a surplus of supply of expertise, will be frustrating and financially challenging.

You’ll have some idea about the demand for your expertise from conversations with other barristers (though may need to cut through the bravado that accompanies the narrative around some practices). Taking a systematic approach to analysing the external context can be helpful and will guide you more quickly towards in-demand areas of work.

With someone who knows your practice well, write down a list of recent changes to the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental context which are having an impact on your practice.

Next, categorise these in terms of opportunities and threats. Think through ways you can maximise the opportunities and minimise the threats. If the threats are insurmountable for a sole practitioner, this could be the time to change direction towards a new niche, or area of expertise.

2: Review your client list

When work dries up, sometimes it’s because existing clients have moved on to a new firm, loyalties have shifted to another chambers, or your solicitor clients are approaching retirement. This scenario is not uncommon for QCs at the peak of their career.

To bring clarity to the question of who your practice serves, describe in detail the profile of an ideal client. This isn’t a description of the characteristics of a client who will make your life easier. Rather, it’s an approach that systematically identifies the type of clients who need your expertise.

It doesn’t matter whether your client is a panellist in a government department, an associate in the disputes team in a magic circle firm, or the managing partner of a high street criminal defence firm. Each will have a specific set of pain points; understanding what they are will allow you to design the service for which they are willing to pay.

Your practice can only serve a small subsection of all clients. Designing the profile of your ideal client and then focusing all your efforts designing the service they need is a more effective strategy than trying to attract anyone who could feasibly instruct you on an occasional, or one-off matter.

3: Market your service to clients, not to other barristers

The days of patiently waiting for your clerk to deliver up briefs are long gone. Future-oriented barristers have known this for some time. Those who have taken the initiative to understand the basics of digital marketing and sales processes are already several steps in front of their competition.

Since the marketing platforms you need to raise your profile and connect with new clients are free, learning the basics of how they work, and then building your confidence using them, should be a priority task. Follow these steps to get started:

(1) Set up an account on LinkedIn.

(2) Add a one-sentence headline summary that states who your practice can help.

(3) Connect with ten people who match the profile of your ideal client.

(4) Pick a theme that is closely related to your practice area and in which have expertise.

(5) Write one post of 150 words on the theme, spell check it and press publish.

(6) Repeat step 5 next week at the same time.

For many, the anxiety about what other barristers will think and say is enough to stop them from even getting started. What matters is what your clients think. Market your practice with your client in mind, rather than other barristers.

4: Approach the task in a systematic way

Starting routine tasks from scratch is time lost winning clients. Having a set of simple, scalable, repeatable systems can make the process of generating new work highly efficient. Without systems, you’ll waste hours of valuable fee-earning time every month just keeping the show on the road.

Designing and implementing new business systems doesn’t require a team from Accenture. Your marketing system, for example, can be as simple as writing one post on LinkedIn at the same time every week. Your sales system can consist of five steps onto which you map just five target clients. Your finance system can be one activity on the 26th day in the month to make sure your bills have been submitted. Your wellbeing system can be shutting down your laptop one hour before you go to sleep, and way before midnight.

One system that will certainly save you time is batching all your practice administration into one time block. Make a list of all your regular non-billable practice tasks, including marketing, sales, billing and practice administration, and allocate time in your diary every month to do all of it. Even better, when things are back on track, consider hiring someone – whose hourly rate is lower than yours – to do it all for you.

5: Don’t blame your clerk

From some conversations over the last year, I could have drawn the conclusion that the pandemic was the result of negligence by barristers’ clerks! A common reaction when things take a downturn is to look around for someone to blame. Often, it’s the clerk who bears the brunt of panic-induced stress.

But now, more than ever, a good relationship with your clerk or practice manager is vital. Not because they will be able to conjure up briefs out of thin air (if that were possible, they would have done that already) but because of the important role they can play as sounding board, confidant, accountability buddy and – critically – surveyor of the market.

Your clerk or practice manager brings a different set of skills, resources and expertise to your practice and has access to different conversations with clients. Your role in the relationship is to draw out insights your clerk can share with you about what potential clients are saying about you, your practice and the market, and make decisions about how to respond to them.

A modern clerk is a business partner who works with you to amplify your practice. You can help them by having a clear messaging framework, good marketing collateral and clearly documented social proof of your expertise. You are the product your clerk is selling; you can make it as easy as possible to take a finished product to market so they can work their magic in conversations with potential clients.

The bounce back

Picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after your practice has taken a tumble isn’t easy. You may well feel anxious, overwhelmed or daunted by the task ahead.

But regardless of your current circumstances, you still have the structure and history of your practice behind you. You’re not starting completely from scratch.

Adopting a systematic approach to analysing the new context, learning digital skills and planning for a post-COVID world is your best chance of success. And since you’ve overcome the biggest hurdle already – qualifying as a barrister – these small challenges are well within your gift.