Practice at the Civil Bar: Some intriguing possibilities

In this article, Andrew Thornton, a barrister at Erskine Chambers and a director of FromCounsel.com, Sparqa Legal and Juriosity.com considers some of the ways in which technology may change how the civil law barristers’ practices may evolve over the next decade.

Although technological advances have transformed many other professions and industries in the last ten years, the real impact of the development of the online world has yet to be felt by the legal profession. True it is that email and electronic research tools have changed the way barristers conduct their practices, every set of chambers has a website and barrister profiles can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter. However, as we move into 2020, the nature of a civil barrister’s practice does not differ materially from a barrister of 2010 (and arguably 2000). Most members of the Bar still operate sole practices from a set of chambers based in a major commercial centre, receive their instructions from other law firms and charge on a time spent basis.

The same can be said for our contemporaries in law firms. A number have now listed on the Stock Exchange (thereby taking on non-lawyers as investors), detailed legal knowledge has become the preserve of professional support lawyers rather than the fee-earners undertaking direct client work, legal research has ceased to be a chargeable item, and some firms have launched on-demand fee-earner arms and/or moved teams to cheaper locations with a view to reducing their fixed costs. However, again, the underlying nature of a solicitor’s practice remains as before.

It is likely that changes to the way in which lawyers practice, driven by technology, will accelerate in the coming decade. In the last couple of years, leading law firms have started to launch technology incubators and recruit chief technology or chief information officers. Some have invested in technology businesses. And the development of AI tools is starting to change how law firms approach document-heavy tasks such as disclosure, due diligence and drafting. Algorithms provide reliable alternatives to human resource at a fraction of the cost.

Advances in technology should increase access to justice and give the Bar an opportunity to broaden its sources of revenue. The question arises as to how those changes will manifest themselves?

One likely source of change is the banking sector. To address the competition provided by the emergence of new so-called ‘challenger’ banks (Starling, Revolut, Monzo and others) and the consequences of ‘open-banking’, banks are increasingly building eco-systems for their customers providing them with much more than traditional banking services (think business insurance, accounting packages and flexible office space credits). Challenger legal service offerings are a natural fit for banking eco-systems. If a business is acquiring its accounting system from its bank, why not also source legal information and advice through a banking app? It will be a natural evolution for the banks to launch (or partner with) online legal providers allowing customers to find lawyers and/or place instructions.

The potential entrance of the banks into the legal sector provides scope for several intriguing possibilities for the Bar. Most obviously, direct access barristers and Bar-led entities will be able to source work from a bank’s online platform thereby directly engaging with clients without the need to involve an instructing solicitor. Online platforms could become an additional source of instructions for the practising Bar. In due course, Chambers may well have a specialised clerk whose role is simply to monitor available work on online platforms and pitch for it on behalf of members.

Fundamentally, in embracing the revolution and satisfying the demands of businesses, the Bar has a number of key advantages over law firms:

  • Members of the Bar undoubtedly are the leading experts in the law. The Bar offers unparalleled expertise in this regard and greater visibility on the approach of judges which can be critical to guiding businesses through difficult legal issues.
  • Members of the Bar offer real value for money compared to their contemporaries within solicitors’ firms; the Bar expense model enables a barrister’s legal practice to be carried out far more cheaply than a law firm can operate.
  • The Bar is less dependent on repetitive work; the bulk of the work undertaken by barristers is bespoke in nature and the technology tools transforming law firms do not have such obvious application to the practice of a barrister.
  • For those members of the Bar wishing to adopt a new business model, the ability to come together with other barristers (and non-barristers) in the form of partnerships and other legal entities creates greater operational flexibility than before.

There are several features of practice at the Bar that suit the existing way in which work is carried out but might constitute impediments to the Bar maximising the opportunities arising for it going forward. Most importantly, the Bar is going to grapple with whether law firms are colleagues or competitors. The Chambers’ model of sharing costs but not revenue complicate fixing fees when a team is fielded and the one member one vote approach to chambers’ decision-making has the capacity to lead to stagnation and inactivity. The Bar will also have to learn how to market itself properly and to understand the need for its brand to be recognised by underlying clients at least as much as by the law firms.

In order to take full advantage of these opportunities, the Bar is going to have to prove itself to be willing to evolve its own business models. Successfully addressing the demand provided by the likely emerging challenger legal business will require members of the Bar to consider alternative business structures (possibly entering into partnerships with each other (or other legal professionals)) and to engage directly with clients in competition with law firms.

Andrew Thornton is a member of Erskine Chambers and a director of FromCounsel.com, Sparqa.com and Juriosity.com. Until its acquisition by Microsoft in 2015, he was a director of Swiftkey, the predictive keyboard company. He sits on the boards of and invests in a number of technology companies.

 

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