Chambers Management

 Fifteen hundred words on chambers management is not a lot for something I’ve been doing to an increasing extent over 30 years! But it does allow me to strip away the detail, and concentrate on the essence of (as I see it, but I would!) our success.

We are one of the largest chambers in the country (having started with a dozen barristers in Liverpool), with state of the art premises in three major cities, and yet we have kept our running costs down to about 12% of turnover for more than 10 years. That highlights one element of chambers management; good administration.

Drilling down further, though, I would say that we need to ask what we are selling ie what is our product. Many barristers would say either that the word “product” is inappropriately commercial, or that they know perfectly well what the product is, namely advocacy. I would have some sympathy with the first point, because I do think it’s essential to remember that we are professionals providing a professional service. I’m quite sure, though, that, unless we re-define advocacy, we will find that much of our product is no longer commercially attractive.

For me, therefore, the first question is: what are we selling? A personal injury barrister told me the other day that he hadn’t conducted a trial for over a year, and I think that is a common experience in major personal injury litigation. We have discovered that almost all our cases settle (I finalise £50 million of claims a year, all through negotiation), and so the old-fashioned skills of cross-examination in court are almost redundant. That indicates to me that we need to re-focus our minds on what our strengths are. Extensive experience is one of them, because we see more cases than solicitors, as a general rule. In my world, negotiation is important, as is knowledge and assessment of people and experts, coupled with management of tactics and expectations. In the commercial world, some barristers will already have comfortable niches in which they advise without going to court, and that is obviously likely to continue. Interestingly, though, I was asking a commercial barrister recently why so much of her work was done in writing, when face to face discussion has so many advantages (I stopped doing paperwork in 1994). It might be thought that court advocacy will always be the staple of the   criminal practitioner, but I read recently that many more cases will be heard in the magistrates’ courts, reducing the need for barrister advocacy. Coupled to the downward pressures on criminal fees, it’s easy to see the reduced need for old fashioned criminal advocacy.

Of course there will always remain some element of court work, but another pressure on our traditional advocacy is the strong trend by successive governments, and by the courts, to take cases out of the court system. In my world, that is strengthened by the desire of specialist lawyers to avoid non-specialist judges. I am currently advocating a system I call neutral facilitation, which is based on the various forms of alternative dispute resolution, which gives the parties the opportunity to create their own dispute management, and take control of the process, rather than get into the clutches of the courts. If that catches on, and there has been a recent rule change tending to support it, there will be even fewer trials and interlocutory hearings in all civil claims.

The days of the quick guilty plea, or the tiny personal injury claim are gone; they don’t need our skills. So all barristers should ask themselves what they’re selling. What have they got that the purchaser really needs? What is our product?

The next question is, how do we sell it? In the age of the sound bite, we have to acknowledge that we are competing in a different market. In most areas of practice, solicitors are re-defining what work they want to send out to the Bar, and sometimes they will be considering the profitability of doing so, as distinct from keeping it in house; the most public example would be higher court advocates, but in personal injury this has been a pressure for years.

Part of the answer to selling our services is to work out who wants and needs what we can offer. I was discussing recently what makes a good barrister, and that’s a discussion we might all need to have, relating it specifically to ourselves. Some of the qualities are not the traditional ones.

The third part of the supply problem is, how do we make sure that our barristers are good enough to compete in a difficult market? Not easy! Not many of us are experts in recruitment interview technique. All chambers should now have specialist, trained recruitment panels, who are committed to delving into applications and searching for evidence of all aspects of the application. Alternatively, part of the job of recruitment could be out-sourced. Ongoing training in recruitment techniques is important, and external guidance on recruitment is probably wise.

Continuing training for barristers is also important; I think we should have far more stringent requirements for training. A major part of our expertise is, or should be in my opinion, specialisation, because that is what marks us out from generalists. In order to specialise, we ought to be knowledgeable in the field, and continuously up-dating our expertise. You can’t beat evidence-based track record as a specialist.

Along with training, I think that performance appraisal is increasingly important. I know we are all self-employed, and that some barristers regard that as permitting them to do what they want, regardless of whether that fits into the corporate ambition, but I feel that we must all recognise that the corporation is important. By way of example, it is probably sensible for chambers to have a set of values, both for the organisation and for its barrister members.

If a barrister does truly have specialist ability, then it should be easy to sell a genuine, top class product. However, as we all know, bad administration can destroy a good product. Unfortunately, the Bar has two difficulties to overcome; first, we must recognise that we are a business, and that we need to manage in a business-like way. Secondly, we have to have internal administration which allows us to do that; good admin is potentially costly.

Turning to detail, we have a corporate governance system led by our management board. There is a profile for members of the board, which includes detail such as the duty to keep abreast of commercial developments in our field. We have a high level of senior staff, plus HR, PR, marketing, seminar management, an IT department, and really excellent staff, many of whom have been with us for a very long time. Above all else, the selection and management of staff is dealt with at the highest level, and we value our staff enormously.

An essential ingredient, I think, is to have one or more barristers with real interest in business management. I don’t mean a degree from Harvard, although that could be good, but an interest in following what goes on in the business world, and why people succeed or fail. This goes back to some extent to the requirement we have of our board members, to keep abreast of the legal business world.

Even more important is the senior member of the management team. We head-hunted our chief executive from a major accountant nearly 25 years ago, which reflected progressive thinking back in those days. The job spec for that position is difficult to create, unless you already have the experience of a first-rate person doing the job, which not many have.

A trend which I’m sure must be taking place is the re-consideration of the old-fashioned notion of deciding all chambers matters by a “democratic” vote of all members. I suspect that the more modern approach will be to reflect the desire for democratic management by appointing a group to manage, ensuring good communication about the decisions being made, with consultation and discussion as appropriate, and dismissal of the managing group if things go badly wrong.

This is not the place to talk about alternative business structures, but I’m sure that, although they could have real value in limited circumstances, they are not a recipe, by themselves, for success.

For me, the over-arching reason for our success, and I think something similar would apply to all successful chambers, is that I have been exceptionally lucky in my chief executive. We have been together for nearly 25 years, and we see eye to eye on everything. He is a very great friend, and we are equally progressive, but both essentially cautious, and careful with money. We need to be alert for new opportunities such as opening more offices (we’ve had discussions with London sets, and thought about other cities), expanding into new areas of work (and abroad?), targeted recruitment, non-core business expansion, merger and acquisition. Above all, re-defining and expanding “advocacy”, and selling it vigorously.

Bill Braithwaite QC, Head of Chambers, Exchange Chambers

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