Chambers must look to recruitment

Observers and leading members of the Bar are failing to address key issues, writes Stephen Graham. Stephen Graham is chairman of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks and senior clerk at 4 Breams Buildings.

Last Wednesday at the Inner Temple Hall, accountants and marketing consultants BDO Stoy Hayward presented their Report on Survey of Barristers' Chambers.

This was the third year running that the company has carried out a survey of chambers. And the 1998 report has been described as the most revealing so far.

After the presentation, Dan Brennan QC, the vice-chairman of the Bar Council, thanked those involved for their work and made some observations on the content of the report and its implications.

But he went on to question the reliability of the data. The basis of the report was a questionnaire sent to all London-based chambers with five or more members.

Brennan's concern was the limited response to the questionnaire, although its compilers seemed satisfied that the 25 per cent response they received had provided a representative sample.

The forthright and persuasive Brennan then took the opportunity to warn us of the perils ahead. The way forward is a modern, streamlined profession, he said. We must be prepared to consider fundamental changes to the way we structure ourselves to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

While listening and flicking through the report, it became clear that there was a glaring omission from the matters that had been considered – not one reference to the importance of recruitment had been made.

There was no suggestion that the quality of the barristers in chambers had any bearing on performance. Indeed, in the report's executive summary, it is stated that "a chamber's financial performance depends on the type of work its members carry out and on the number of silks in the chambers".

I disagree. No matter how performance is measured, the success of a set depends on the quality of its members. Everything else takes second place.

This is not to stay the type of work that takes place and the number of silks is insignificant. But for a set of chambers to score in these areas it must boast a supply of barristers of the highest calibre.

The skill and expertise that barristers have to offer is the raw material with which we work. It is the single most important ingredient for a successful set of chambers.

Without it there is nothing to administer. Without it there is nothing to financially plan for and nothing to market.

The Bar must attract the best that universities and law schools produce. Chambers must organise their recruitment procedures to make the most of the pool of talent on offer. If we are to become the highly specialised profession that Brennan proposes, this is the area into which our resources should be directed.

Pupillage awards are one obvious way to attract candidates for tenancy, although it is not simply just a question of throwing money around – even if it is available. Chambers must think carefully about how money is to be spent and be prepared to invest time.

Most chambers have a pupillage and/or tenancy committee. There are consultants available who can teach committee members interview techniques. Having the proper training in this area will get the very best out of the process, ensuring that these time-consuming sessions are of real value to both sides.

Pupillage interviews are not the place to practise cross-examination skills. Once selected, pupils must be given the opportunity and facilities to complete their training in the best possible environment.

Later on, when decisions are to be made on tenancies, the interview training will come into play again.

Success cannot be achieved by merely indulging in marketing exercises, changing administration techniques or renting a few extra rooms. A quick-fix solution will not work. The first step to success is ensuring that we provide a quality product.

The importance of selecting and training the barristers of the future cannot be over-estimated. Investment in IT, administration and marketing is important but chambers must carefully work out where their priorities lie. Without a doubt, recruitment should be top of the list.