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A new era dawns: Are we awake?

Among the regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007 is the need to improve access to justice, protect and promote the interests of the consumer and encourage an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession. The aim is clear: the Act seeks to encourage change in the legal marketplace, but how, as barristers, will this affect our profession? Will it radically alter the relationship between solicitor and barrister? Will we see barristers working in partnerships? One change that is already here is that of a more accessible legal market for consumers through the increasingly utilised means of Public Access. As a result, the consumer will want easy access to information on the track record and expertise of the barrister – this must be addressed. Are you listening at the back?

Public access to information

A Green Paper in 1987 suggested a change in the traditional two-tier approach that has always been adopted by the profession in this country – i.e. a solicitor instructs a barrister on behalf of the client. The rules subsequently changed in 2004, allowing ‘the public’ to approach and instruct barristers directly for certain purposes. The traditional role of the solicitor as intermediary has been altered and in many cases the consumer will be looking to appoint a barrister directly resulting in an increasing public appetite for on-demand interaction. Rather than relying solely on solicitors’ advice, the technologically aware consumers of the 21st century will seek out information on barristers, enabling them to make educated decisions about who their advocate should be. The role of the solicitor is likely to remain significant, aside from continuing to refer their clients, they will continue to perform essential tasks that barristers cannot, for example, be engaged in, such as the general management or administration of a client’s affairs. Nevertheless, the point remains that barristers can no longer solely rely on solicitor-driven work as the consumer embraces the notion of direct access. Whilst maintaining the traditional alliance with solicitors, the Bar should properly consider the impact of online technology on consumer buying habits.

The Internet has enabled consumers to be increasingly savvy in making choices. An incredible depth and breadth of information available on the internet means that we all, as consumers, make informed choices and, as a result, simply disregard products if we have no point of reference as to their success, popularity, effectiveness etc. It is time for the Bar to catch up with the trend that has been set by other sectors and professions – we need only look at insurance, travel, finance and supermarkets to see how advanced the process of information merchandising has become.

Tanfield’s experience

Against this background, the departure in August 2007 of our Chambers’ Director seemed to me to be a cloud with a silver lining. Capable though he was, losing him provided an obvious opportunity to re-vamp chambers’ marketing practices and maybe bring in some external expertise. And, while we were about it, why not have a look at our old, tired website?

Of course, politely pushing for change in a chambers meeting is, I imagine, a bit like going out for a quiet drink in the days of press gangs. I immediately found myself chairing our Marketing Committee and meeting a succession of web designers distinguishable only by the varying levels of technical jargon they employed. Eventually we resorted to the tried and tested technique of asking the only people whose language we could understand – other barristers.

Thus settled on a reputable firm of legal PR consultants, we commissioned them to audit chambers, identify some “brand values” and think how to accentuate and articulate those values, making us as distinguishable as possible. After all, weren’t we just another collection of jobbing barristers striving to get work? Not quite, it seems; the audit revealed certain strengths and weaknesses which most of us collectively recognised, while at the same time never quite realising we had.

How to weave these brand values into a website? For this, we retained the services of a niche design company who produced two “concepts” for us – both visually striking, both fresh, both some way removed from what one might often see when visiting those of other chambers (when not dazzled by one’s opponents’ terrifyingly impressive credentials). We drew on aspects of both concepts, and two weeks later we were shown the result. The ability of the designers to reflect our various wishes and preferences was enlightening and impressive; I have seldom seen a committee of barristers reduced to such a state of reluctant, helpless unanimity.

The next task was selling the result to the rest of chambers, and for this purpose we held an open afternoon for members to come and inspect the site (at this stage just a succession of PDFs) themselves. This of course was for my benefit not theirs, an insurance policy against later expressions of dissatisfaction, and as a precaution I arranged it for a Friday afternoon when I was in Court. It went swimmingly; the designers said that those who came along were cheerful, polite, to the point, and obviously more interested in going out for a drink!




Utilising yet a third set of professionals to construct the site, we harmonised the presentational side and the technical side. The aim was to try to think really hard about how our clients – not forgetting that this now extends to the general public too - would want to use our website, making it as easy as possible for users to choose barristers by call, experience and expertise, and highlighting in a self-contained section those who are prepared and qualified to accept Public Access work. We also wanted accessible images, with an element of wit and latitude; I am particularly pleased that one member’s dog basket (or technically, I should say, that of his pet dog) will now adorn our pupillage page, and that a bottle of champagne left incongruously in a row of files introduces forthcoming social events.

That left only the small task of collating the members’ profiles and photographs. This threw up a number of contentious issues (in particular “But why can’t Diocesan Law have its own Practice Group?” and “I’m not really that fat, am I?”) but, by a combination of cajoling, flattering, and threatening to write them myself, they all seem to have got done.

Of course, the information that is available on the website about an individual’s expertise and experience is just as important as the message that the site communicates about the set as a whole. But, being part of a strong brand will, however, naturally reinforce the consumer’s feeling that they are looking at the right person for the job.

The site has recently gone live and I leave it to others to judge the results. All I hope is that those solicitors whom our clerks say they can hear down the phone tapping away in search of the profile pages of those being put forward for potential briefs will be pleasantly surprised by what they find. And the cost of all this (plus a vibrant media promotions programme which now sees our members obtaining media space like never before)? About half the annual salary of our former chambers director. No disrespect to an excellent professional like him, but I think it’s money well spent.

Don’t drop off

The main message, in my opinion, is that solicitors and barristers should embrace the change that the Legal Services Act 2007 will and is already bringing about. Online technology provides an excellent opportunity for the Bar to promote competition in the provision of services and to encourage an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession – let’s use it effectively. Solicitors will continue to instruct barristers but advances in how the consumer can obtain information about services on offer means that the Bar must respond accordingly so that they can in fact reap the benefits of change rather than shying away from it. There is no denying that consumers are becoming increasingly reliant on online technology to help them make their decisions – whether it be in their choice of insurance provider, supermarket or indeed, legal expert. Therefore, as service providers, we need to ensure that the volume and quality of information about the service we provide is in line with the requirements of the consumer so that they can ultimately make an informed choice.

Andrew Butler, Tanfield Chambers





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