With the Bar Council stoking the furnace over ‘public access’ for the last 10 years, there has been constant regulatory change surrounding the initiative, suggesting either a carefully measured approach to improving competitive practices, or an ad hoc response to what may be fundamental flaws in the original idea that no amount of regulatory adjustment can resolve.
While the intention behind regulatory change is to present new opportunities, the Bar’s ‘evolution’ towards public access has so far only exposed barristers to competition for legal work from solicitors.
Unfortunately, for many members of the Bar, losing to solicitors in the public access arena is a foregone conclusion, particularly for those less savvy in marketing techniques. Barristers have traditionally had far less experience than solicitors in dealing directly with clients, and chambers have had considerably fewer resources than firms of solicitors aimed at client-relations, which is an essential component of legal service delivery.
Put simply, without a support structure dedicated to client management, barristers are bound to struggle with the demands of court work for one client while coping with the urgent needs of another outside of court. It is for this reason that solicitor partnerships have proven successful in the public access market, with solicitors working together as a team, covering each other’s backs, all for the good of the firm.
Even self-employed solicitors, unlike their barrister counterparts, rely on support staff, such as personal assistants and practice managers, who are experienced in client relations. Thus, despite the drive for deregulation aimed at bolstering barrister-client interaction, public access to stand-alone barristers (those without the facilities to support their client base) is an innately problematic proposition.
Moreover, from a client’s viewpoint, despite the advantages of avoiding cost-duplication caused by solicitor-counsel tandems, the financial incentives derived from public access are likely to be short-lived if clients are exposed to services of inadequate quality due to a lack of basic support resources.
Clearly, to succeed in the public access market, barristers need to be both cost-effective and service-efficient. To this end, they need to form alliances with entities that go beyond the traditional resources provided by chambers, but stop short of resembling the cost-heavy structures of solicitors’ practices. In simple terms, what barristers need, as they evolve towards public access activity, is for their chambers to evolve with them.
One possible solution is for chambers to consider expanding their range of services to include client-relations support by outsourcing to ‘legal case managers’, a new and specialised breed of legal professionals that found its roots in international client practice.
Many international clients who ventured into the potholed world of litigation in the UK faced daunting obstacles in terms of language and cultural barriers, and for this reason they often unwittingly offered themselves up for slaughter to unscrupulous lawyers. In response, a niche was created for legally-trained intermediaries who spoke clients’ language and intimately understood their requirements. Legal case managers have the necessary qualifications to understand the value of legal services in order to level the playing field between lawyers and clients. Furthermore, since they do not actually do any legal work themselves, the support structure they offer is highly cost-effective.
Award-winning barrister and specialist in multi-jurisdictional commercial litigation and arbitration at 3PB Barristers, Nikolai Lazarev, has commented:
“Combining chambers’ traditional services with the resources of legal case managers is a promising means of enabling barristers to attract a larger share of legal work. This union of legal professionals enables barristers to continue doing what they do best - focussing their billable time on advocacy and substantive legal work - while legal case managers provide administrative infrastructure for effective client handling and play an invaluable role in supporting client-barrister relationships and communication, including post-advice support, which is another example of an important, albeit underestimated, function that is provided by legal case managers.”
As a result, barristers are not only shielded from dealing with minor and repetitive matters concerning client-relations management, but clients readily save money by avoiding paying for time that would otherwise require barristers’ involvement and be charged at barristers’ standard charge-out rate.
By harnessing the expertise of legal case managers, chambers can provide public access clients with a low-cost efficient administrative resource to assist in understanding and controlling their legal matters, whilst providing barristers with the necessary support structure to achieve a state of efficiency where they can actually work less, earn more and maintain better relations with clients.
Legal Cost Finance
In addition to fortifying their support systems, the more progressive barristers may also consider alternative means of achieving competitive advantage in the contest for public access work. In this regard, the question of legal cost affordability, central to the drive behind deregulation of barrister practices, can be taken a significant step further.
If barristers can provide a unique selling proposition by not only offering clients more affordable access to justice, but also easier payment terms, the public access trophy will be theirs for the taking.
Offering clients better payment terms is, in fact, a matter of simply joining the dots. Barristers can now offer their clients a payment plan through third-party financiers in the form of legal cost credit. These new consumer credit products simply allow clients to settle their legal costs at their own convenience using affordable instalments over an extended period.
The interesting twist is that by providing a nominal discount (around 5-10%) on their legal bills – as a means of offsetting clients’ financing cost (i.e. interest) - barristers can effectively secure immediate settlement of their fee notes from a third-party financier, while their clients enjoy an affordable and convenient payment method, instead of being asked to discharge their entire legal costs liability outright from their own pockets.
Unlike ‘litigation finance’, which claims a stake in the outcome of a client’s case, legal cost credit solutions are useful for a wide range of case types, including instances where clients need funds to pay for a barrister’s opinion in order to qualify for ‘litigation finance’, or in cases where a client simply has cash-flow limitations. Other instances include non-litigation matters, and matters where clients have already incurred legal costs and must find the means to settle their lawyers’ bills.
Legal cost credit solutions, in addition to being a unique selling proposition for barristers searching to secure new instructions, can also assist in avoiding the risk of damaging relations with existing clients when recovering aged debt. In many cases, barristers are reluctant to aggressively pursue clients (or solicitors) over unpaid bills, as this may cause tensions and affect the prospect of future work referral. Suggesting the opportunity of a convenient payment plan at no extra cost to the client, may serve as a crucial incentive that liberates aged debt and helps to improve barristers’ cash flow.
Further to aged debt recovery, this type of financing arrangement has obvious win-win benefits for clients and barristers while specialist credit providers like legalcostfinance.com are already offering consumers (via their lawyers) credit lines to pay their legal costs. All barristers and their clerks have to do is to follow three simple rules:
- When sending clients a cost estimate – offer a payment plan!
- When sending clients an invoice – offer a payment plan!
- When chasing clients over a debt – offer a payment plan!
To increase their chances of securing a share of the public access market, barristers must consider offering their clients payment plans as a standard practice procedure. Let’s face it there aren’t too many barristers who would be unwilling to offset clients’ additional third-party financing costs by discounting their invoice by 5-10% in order to get their invoice paid without delay.
A word of caution, however – access to legal cost finance is not limited to barristers alone. It is equally available to solicitors for use with their clients. It is now a question of who will be first to adopt this solution as an industry standard, and today this opportunity is far more relevant to barristers, given the impending challenges they face in the competition for public access work.
According to Stephen Evers, who is an experienced member of the practice management team at 3PB Barristers chambers:
“A legal cost credit solution is what the legal profession has been crying out for. By shifting the risk from the lawyer back to the client, and enjoying immediate settlement of professional fees, financing clients’ legal costs provides clear advantages for lawyers over Conditional Fee Agreements.”
Mr Evers continues:
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see legal cost credit solutions replacing CFAs completely in the near future.”
In all, to triumph in the public access market, barristers must recognise the importance of service quality and cost convenience. While the former is a wake-up call for chambers and may take additional time to satisfy, the latter is entirely in the hands of individual barristers and the solution is available for their immediate adoption.
The transition from traditional advocacy to public access is undoubtedly a challenging process, but one that promises rewarding opportunities for proactive and market-savvy practitioners.
Winston Churchill said “[a] pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty”. By recognising the ongoing regulatory changes as an opportunity and responding in a commercially prudent manner that involves adopting client-management platforms and implementing customer credit solutions, barristers have a meaningful chance of securing a share of the future legal services market.
Dr. Rapoport collaborated with Nikolai Lazarev of 3PB on the above piece
Dr Yuri Rapoport
Legal Cost Finance
+44 772 646 6467