The changing role of the clerk in the modern age

 As the recruitment process gets underway for a new Bar Council Chief Executive to replace Stephen Crowne, who is retiring this August, it is an interesting time to take a moment to contemplate how familiar we have all become with the role Chief Executives take at the Bar. At one time it was unthinkable that a non-lawyer could make a useful contribution to the business of a Barristers Chambers. Of course, it was actually unthinkable to consider ‘Chambers business’ to be a business at all!

And it is not just Chief Executives, but an array of new roles we have been getting used to in recent years, from Chambers Directors, Directors of Clerking, Directors of Client Care to Business Development, Marketing and Events Managers – all expected to overlap with the traditional role of the Clerks’ room.

Where does this leave the role of the clerk? – this question is difficult enough before you even start considering the impact of digital and social communication in how Barristers and Clerks now communicate with the outside world.

How are expectaions changing?

There has been a marked rise in expectations in different areas, from within the Bar, professional and lay clients and from those entering these roles or climbing the ladder.

The driving force of the young Bar
From the Bar’s perspective, there has been a noticeable shift from the traditional powerbase of the senior ranks to the young Bar, who are determined to drive change and to do so quickly and most effectively.

Add in the pressure, to some, of university and tuition fees, significant levels of debt and the downwards pressure on the availability of work and fees, particularly public funding and the junior Bar is simply no longer willing, or able, to sit and wait it out without structured planning and clearly defined career routes.

If we are witnessing change through the driving force of the so-called Generation Y or Millennials, then what is to come with Generation Z or the iGen is even less likely to be conformist.

Referrals are not the only way

Professional and lay clients have also played a significant role in driving change, with traditional routes to the Bar having altered considerably and the historic referral method only one of several ways of instructing the Bar.  Solicitors are also retaining more work than ever and there has been a marked rise in the amount of work undertaken by solicitor advocates and in-house lawyers, particularly in criminal legal aid cases, which in his 2014 “independent review in to criminal advocacy in England and Wales”, Sir Bill Jeffrey highlighted as a “marked upward trend which shows no sign of flattening”

The digital era

Information is everywhere, from Chambers’ websites and members’ profiles, to the rise of social media by the Bar; you’ll find the Silks going great guns on Twitter, with the junior ranks doing their thing on LinkedIn. Clients are also more switched on to choice than ever, demanding value for money in every area and in some cases negotiating with Chambers directly.

Clerk’s competition

From the Clerk’s perspective there have been changes too. Rewind 20 years and the reward for a Junior Clerk who spent countless hours taking straploads of authorities that no two barristers and a judge were ever going to read, to and from the high court, was the knowledge of a career defining moment where they would one day be crowned Senior Clerk.

Fast forward and this picture looks very different. Today’s Clerk faces competition from all sides, with newly created and traditional roles being filled more frequently than ever by individuals entering from a variety of sectors.

New structures, new roles

Management structures have also changed. Around 20 years ago the Commercial Bar began to develop new business and staffing models.  A motivator behind this change was to appear more in-tune with the clients they were serving and Chambers also had an eye on the increasingly large sums being paid to Senior Clerks.

The Commercial Bar began creating new roles including Chambers Director and CEO, hiring former members of the armed services in an attempt to appear more in-step with the business world.  This was also cheaper – with fixed salaries and target-driven bonuses paid rather than the traditional percentages of Senior Clerks.

Generally these roles had little or no input in the day-to-day clerking function but were expected to oversee the business, manage and develop staff and generate new work. These new roles didn’t always work out. The reasons behind this were often a lack of integration and co-operation with senior staff and members, inappropriate skill sets and little demonstrable benefit against Senior Clerks who could be measured against work brought in.

The trend then moved towards Chambers looking inwards, with Sets recognising and encouraging talent and providing suitable resources.  Senior Clerks were paired with Senior Solicitors, Managing Partners or Senior Managers with professional services sector experience. This external resource provided strategic management expertise.  Today’s CEO or Chambers Director is often a generalist, possibly with a professional services background, but not always. They have an array of skills developed in senior leadership roles, as consultants or managing in completely unrelated areas. Above all they are people focused and sophisticated relationship builders.

The Bar hasn’t moved completely away from the traditional model of hierarchal leadership with some Sets still operating with key elements of the business overseen by the head of Chambers and a Senior Clerk.  The most successful Sets combine the best elements of a traditional Chambers model, (value, service, knowledge) with modern working practices.  They are staffed with a diverse team who are highly skilled in their particular discipline, including, strategic management, clerking, business development, administration and finance – staffing teams which work together with members and a range of clients delivering a partnership-based model.

Skills needed

How does a modern Barristers Clerk gear themselves up to meet and exceed expectation?

Further education

Firstly, they must equip themselves properly, by undertaking additional or further education in an associated area or through one of the Institute of Barristers Clerks’ excellent programmes of education.  We have seen a rising focus on specialist skills such as marketing and business development expertise and from top to bottom.

Coaching is becoming key

Others looking for an edge work with dedicated business coaches, who can help work through new or additional responsibilities or simply act as a neutral sounding board, which has been normal and acceptable practice in the business world for many years.

Making the move into marketing

The absolute must, as mentioned above, is the requirement to be a sophisticated business developer and marketer. From the most junior to the most senior role, individuals are now expected to attract, retain and develop business and professional relationships.

In her 2001 article for the Lawyer Magazine entitled “Untapped Talent”, former Chambers Director Suzanne Cosgrove asked “where is the training and development effort focused on building tomorrow’s managers, marketers and chambers directors?” Forward 16 years and there has been some change but there is still much to do to upskill and develop.

Individuals have taken the bull by the horns, becoming degree qualified, MBAs and chartered marketers and forcing themselves in to hybrid roles such as Director of Clerking and Practice Director, combining overall strategic leadership of the clerking and staffing function with significant business development undertakings. This is to be applauded.
So what is expected of a modern Clerk or Practice Manager? Modern Clerks are expected to undertake many of the more traditional elements of the role and have ditched some of the more antiquated, but have also been asked to develop or come armed with a new range of skills.

A world of change

We’re looking at a very different world for Barristers.  From the referral method which used to provide truckloads of unassigned work, often numerous times a day across the Bar, the Legal Services Act and greater competition, to direct access – the latter now generating excellent business for those who have embraced it. Technology is also a big factor driving change. In this digital age, Barristers have more opportunities than ever to market direct using online and social platforms.

So, in this new world, is it time to rethink the Clerking role? Clearly many elements of the job have changed beyond recognition and the title can paint a confused picture to the outside world. As much as the modern day practitioner isn’t willing to sit on his or her hands, neither is the modern clerk. There is a notable overlap with the energy of a rapidly changing Bar and today’s clerks – with best outcomes seemingly achieved through clearly defined and mutual responsibilities, trust and a shared determination to succeed.

Nick Rees is Managing Director at GRL Legal LLP

GRL provides recruitment and development services to the Bar.

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