Managing your chambers – a choice 


Much will be written, and many comments made about how different chambers respond to the new norm as we come out of this pandemic. Given the economic backdrop, the choices that individual chambers make will be key.

Over the course of the last two decades many barristers’ chambers have adopted a more “managerial “approach to the running of their chambers. In part driven by scale, intense competitive pressure, and a changing regulatory and legislative landscape. Further, it reflects changing expectations from members and employees as to how they should be treated. Deference, rather than being expected, is often viewed with some suspicion and a more democratic and inclusive approach is a must for any organisation seeking to retain and attract the best. This is true not just of young barristers but all who have a relationship with Chambers.

Chambers may have recognised and experienced the benefit of investing in their management structures and leveraged off a higher cost base to deliver better commercial results. However, for some, rightly or wrongly this will be seen to have just reduced their personal profitability with no real tangible benefits.  After all Chambers have thrived in the past without being “managed.”

This article seeks to set out some thoughts when considering your approach and attitude towards “management “ and  how having a clear and understood approach to managing  chambers is a necessary pre requisite for being able to feel the benefit of any associated investment.  One possible outcome is that those who get this right may as has happened in solicitors’ firms pull away from the pack in terms of profitability and standing.

Organisations often fail to recognise or address the pressure to manage and define the change necessary to achieve success. This behaviour can result in simply, but elegantly managing decline– you do have a choice but too few recognise what that choice is.

Professional service organisations that simply seek to ape corporates and clumsily rush to overlay on a very specific type of organisation often  fail to realise the commercial value of the investment in “management “ and simply increase the cost base for their members. The cost of management is like rent or an IT system – it is an investment and as such needs to be rigorously assessed as to the value it creates.

Barrister chambers are not mini corporates or law firms. Solicitors in the larger city and national firms have often given up significant levels of discretion in respect of the level of control over the manner in which they work and their own careers.  In reality, the term partner is often more to do with remuneration than being a business owner.

The unique structure of running a set of chambers, a membership organisation populated by individuals with their own businesses makes the application of that which we can call “management “and any perceived reduction in personal freedom problematic. A sensitive approach to the very specific nature of “management “needs to be developed which reflects the drivers and motivation of the members. Many have chosen this route to practise their professional skill to avoid being part of a “bureaucratic” business. Some   do not want to be good “corporate citizens “and perhaps we should not seek to make them so.

Those charged with leading and managing chambers do not have the luxury of that which is crucial in a more corporate environment, a strong and robust governance structure. They rely much more heavily on the ability to persuade people to sign up to perhaps even a, loose framework, and a shared set of values. And yet a failure to have individual barristers sign up to compliance with any degree of managerial discipline is probably a significant barrier to realising the benefit of investing in “managing “your chambers.

A clumsily handled introduction of a more managed and collective approach may result in creating something which is alien to perhaps some of your strongest players. A failure to appreciate and understand culture i.e. norms and beliefs may have serious commercial consequences. Barristers by their very nature are highly mobile, so creating an approach which keeps the best on board should be an organisational imperative.

What can often be observed of the management of chambers is that those in support functions report to the head of chambers and management boards are simply cut adrift in to the wider organisation to persuade and cajole compliance with even the most basic of “policy” . As is so often the case in highly professional and intellectually rich organisations,  “lay” people are recruited  in to roles where the understanding of what they can bring to the table and how they in turn should be managed is not  subject to any degree of   rigour. Support appointments are sometimes perceived as a “magic bullet” but starved of resources and authority.  Marketing professionals become party planners and HR the police for low level compliance with employment law and the source of ever-present whining about annual appraisals.

The necessity and cost of these roles is all too often neither understood nor valued – sadly, but crucially the members are not always wrong.

The management approach including the number and seniority of those in support roles needs to be reflective of the actual needs of the chambers and their members and not simply “we better get some of that “

Management can be about more than just cost control. It can be about driving up the top line through its people and “branding “, moving in to different and more profitable areas of law, or driving out administration costs through the implementation of new practise management systems. In short, any manner of things that the chambers feel will add and not subtract from the business of their members.

The problem in developing a view on the approach to managing chambers is the extent to which members choose to create and agree to a common set of commercial objectives. This will impact on the willingness and acceptance to invest in those things which have public good qualities i.e. a value beyond their narrow and short-term personal needs.

The extent to which this choice has been made and accepted by the majority, will determine the ability to enforce those measures designed to achieve better commercial outcomes. This point I would suggest is of greater significance than the appointment of several support roles.

When and if a common or shared approach is agreed and a management structure put in place this can allow a sharp focus on the effectiveness of those charged with management. In the absence of an agreed approach it can just descend into an argument about spiralling costs .

Often in many organisations a stage is reached usually associated with size when it is felt appropriate to bring in certain specialisms. HR, Marketing, IT etc. Finance as a discrete and recognised specialism is normally in first.  A myriad of HR and marketing heads of and or directors exist in relatively small organisations where they are directing very little and are simply low level but badged administrators. This is not to say that they are not necessarily busy, hardworking and or even respected, but they are probably adding very little at a strategic business management level.

This, coupled with individuals unable to exert authority, be heard and or effectively persuade people to change their behaviour results in low expectations of said disciplines. Such an environment ultimately determines how effective these functions are and can create a vicious, but expensive cycle.

In summary therefore if you have not had the debate and  there is not enough acceptance , interest or perceived value amongst the members in anything beyond housekeeping and some admin support then don’t overlay your chambers with unnecessary and low value, but high cost support appointments.

When faced with what are likely to be tough times, a debate should be had therefore, and it should be more than just short-term tactical decisions and the very necessary cost containment. If you feel that the only way to be able to move quickly , grow your business as well as manage costs then do not grudgingly delegate this to the board , introduce some managerial discipline – respect it , reward it and listen to what they say.

This debate is not a binary choice of “corporate versus “professional”,  it is what sort of chambers do you need to be,  the skills that are needed to get you there and do you have them?  Part of that will be about the management structure and resourcing and whether or not your current approach is” fit for purpose” . Ironically, that may mean investing more but” smarter” and in people who can confidently set out to your members their value. Crucially not just a poorly implemented, pale imitation of that which exists elsewhere -your choice.

John F Renz, former HR director for law firms, now a consultant.

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