The winds of change

Chambers has seen many changes over the last number of years yet the last three years the pace of change seems to have increased. The regulatory framework has resulted in barristers and chambers staff battling with the concept of chambers structures even more so than previously. With many chambers having service companies already, ABSs are now the next structural change ripe for implementation.

The increased regulatory framework follows a similar pattern to all professional services. It is clear the pace of such change has impacted the way chambers are run. These extra burdens have placed strain on the management of chambers and has led in some cases to its growing professionalisation.

Alternative pricing models have been introduced with fixed price work becoming more the norm and budgets needing to be adhered to. This has always been in place for volume services and lower value work, it is now coming into play for the vast majority of mid-tier work. The impact of legal aid changes has caused many chambers to reviews its core markets and re-evaluate its work areas. This has led to some difficult conversations and some even more difficult decisions.

The profession has become more open about health and well being. This worthwhile initiative implemented by the Bar Council has been a great success and I hope will continue to reap rewards for all practicing at the bar and working within chambers.

There has been unprecedented movement at the bar with silks, seniors and juniors moving chambers according to what they are looking for from chambers. We have seen more movement with clerks and staff as well and it is likely this trend will continue. Many chambers have employed chambers directors and chief executives to run their chambers. Challenges have arisen around this in some cases with some chambers not quite ready to make that leap forward and in other cases.

On going soft skills training has been seen as a core of any growth and development plans in other professional services and so too we are seeing it at the bar.  Many chambers have increased their investment in staff training covering areas such as time management, networking and social media skills. Some barristers have relied on the Inns and professional organisations to support them in these skills and others have benefited from training programmes within their own chambers.

The increase of connectivity with expectations of direct access to barristers through email and direct dials has caused some consternation but has mainly been adapted. This has been driven by client expectations but in many situations, has also added extra pressures to practice. Many chambers have moved to having only online library resources

In order to accommodate these many changes chambers have grown in size although perhaps not in the very specialist areas. As a result, we can see a more corporate attitude arising in a small handful of sets. Richard Susskind in his book “The End of Lawyers” in 2010 talked about these changes and in particular the impact of technology on practice.  In his more recent book “The Future of the Professions” written with his son Daniel he raises the spectre of artificial intelligence and other increasingly capable systems replacing people.

 

So what does the future of barristers and chambers look like and indeed is there a future?

It is clear in many sets around the country there has been a move towards more professionalism. The challenge we have is to remain relevant. It is clear that the legal services market is changing and the bar must adapt to ensure we remain at the forefront of such changes. The report published by The Law Society in January 2016 concentrated on predicting the legal services market in 2020. The report states that the key drivers for change in the legal services market are clustered into five groups namely:

  • global and national economic business environments
  • how clients buy legal services (including in-house lawyer buyers as well as SMEs/public)
  • technological and process innovation
  • new entrants and types of competition
  • wider political agendas around funding, regulation and the principles of access to justice.

 

For the Bar the business environment is a challenging one. Globalisation of chambers is on the increase. Sets have opened up offices to service their clients in Asia, the US, Europe and offshore jurisdictions. This is likely to continue. The impact of Brexit which may well have a positive impact for those in regulatory fields but may also have a detrimental effect on those in more commercial areas depending on the outcome of negotiations.  At such a time of political change it remains to be seen what the economic outlook will look like.

There has been an increase in public access work helped along no doubt by the increase in those marketing on behalf of the bar including the Bar Council’s direct access portal. Anecdotally chambers have seen an increase in work from inhouse counsel and in particular from multi nationals. Fixed price work is becoming more common.

The Law Society have talked about the increased fragmentation within the solicitors profession between smaller firms and large corporates and we are also seeing this at the bar. The question is will it continue at the same pace.

There is currently talk on paperless environments with some chambers having taken the plunge and others considering a paperlite system. Technology improvements are taking place with time recording being implemented, better reporting and recording of information. The technology changes including voice over internet protocol (Voip) telephony has allowed greater flexibility and indeed more accessibility for clients, solicitors and barristers to work more as teams. Some chambers are already working on this. We hear of strides on one chambers towards a chat bot which at this point is a decision tree matrix to assist instructing solicitors with hopes of expanding it further using artificial intelligence. Some of the larger lawfirms have introduced artificial intelligence to read contracts and report on them.

Chambers have seen some changes in our client base. New entrants to the market have increased their market share. In some cases, they are looking at different methods of working with barristers and chambers and we need to adapt.  International clients are still coming to the UK and in increased numbers. The challenge for the bar is to maintain the extraordinary levels of expertise whilst remaining relevant and continuing to add value to our clients’ needs.  Are you up for the challenge?

 

By Fiona Fitzgerald

Fiona has been the Chief Executive of Radcliffe Chambers since May 2014 and is responsible for overseeing the operations of chambers and the implementation of its strategy. Chambers has grown significantly over the last three years which resulted last year in Radcliffe Chambers winning Chambers of the Year at both the Halsbury awards and Legal Week awards, Private Client Chambers of the year at the STEP awards and being shortlisted for Legal Week innovation awards, The Lawyer Chambers of the Year and Private Client team and litigation team at the Solicitors Journal awards.

Fiona is also a member of the executive of the Legal Practice Managers Association. (LPMA) The LPMA is a networking and support group for those managing and leading organisations such as barristers chambers and solicitors.

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