An investment in the future

Chambers are becoming more aware of the need to manage their activities. There are several reasons for this, including increased competition from solicitors as well as from other sets; the greater expectations of sol icitors and clients; advances in technology which enable changes in working practices; plus the provision of more statistical information to assist decision-making.

There have also been changes in the funding of work, levels of fees and case management. Altogether this has led to a growing realisation among barristers that life may never be the same again for the profession.

The way in which chambers are managed has changed over the past six years. The changes started in London with the creation of the title of practice manager.

At first the job amounted only to the renaming of the senior clerk's function. But some sets took more radical steps by recruiting individuals from outside the Bar who brought specific skills to the job in areas such as organisation and working methods, management, financial awareness and com- puter literacy.

Chambers took on practice managers for a number of reasons, the most common being that they wanted to be perceived as forward looking and therefore open to change. They also realised that good clerks did not have the spare capacity or the knowledge to meet the extra needs of chambers. It made sense, therefore, to maintain the clerking role while bringing in other specific abilities.

In 1996 there are many more chambers' managers. Some sets have formal written constitutions while others are amiable “co-operatives”. A few chambers are administered by means of a limited company while their members retain their sole practitioner status.

Practice managers' job descriptions are varied and they have different areas of responsibility. Similarly, the organisational structure of the support staff varies among sets with the manager being either equal, junior or senior to the clerk.

Managers are still thin on the ground in provincial sets and many of these chambers have yet to identify the role as separate from the clerking function.

Several professional associations have been set up to enable practice managers to share their experiences and ideas. These include the Society for Computers and Law, the Professional Services Marketing Group and the Legal Practice Managers' Association.

Many chambers' management teams are facing the same problems. The nature of the Bar – both its strength and its weakness of being a body of individual practitioners – means that it is hard to achieve more than a token gesture to the commitment to the need for change.

Nevertheless, a great deal of progress is being made and the production of the Bar Council guidelines is a helpful for chambers trying to refine their working methods. The guidelines are relevant to members of the Bar as well as managers.

Meaningful progress cannot happen without the support of the Bar because a manager or clerk cannot impose changes on his employers. The philosophy has to be demonstrated from the top downward – in other words by the head of chambers and his management committee.

To convince barristers of the need for change the features and benefits of any new plan need to be identified. Unfortunately, it is always much easier to maintain the status quo rather than trying to introduce something new.

But many in the legal world are coming to realise that preparation for the future is necessary. Indeed strategic plans, analyses of the client base and budgets with cash-flow forecasts are becoming common practices in a growing number of sets, as are internal training seminars to encourage continuous professional development.

Attention is being paid to staff and personnel matters and sets are now carrying out staff appraisals and investigating the Investors in People award. Some chambers are conducting internal audits as well as external audits with their clients to highlight strengths and weaknesses and to identify future opportunities for growth.

Charles Bloom QC, head of chambers at 28 St John Street Chambers, Manchester, came to the Bar 33 years ago and equates life then to the Middle Ages. Chambers consisted of a small number of barristers in a few rooms with one untrained clerk and his quill pen.

Nowadays, chambers operate through management committees, have a large number of support staff and many members using information technology. Nevertheless, Bloom believes there is still a long way to go and that managers are an investment for the future.

There have been many changes during my six years' association with the Bar. However, these have mainly taken place in those chambers where there is an interest in and an awareness of outside influences, particularly those which provide the work.

Some sets will survive as they are but they may not be exploiting their potential or meeting their clients' needs. Others are looking forward to the changes and challenges of the future, while maintaining the high standards of the past.