Changing prehistoric practices

The recent Bar Conference included a session on chambers management. It examined the past and future of a fictional chambers in crisis that had the address No 1 Jurassic Court.

The fictional case study included the revelation that Jurassic Court's income had declined. The new senior clerk, with a better working knowledge of the computer system than his predecessor, had succeeded in keeping receipts at a reasonable level by collecting most of the older fees. However, this meant that the chambers was now dependent on current work and how well the set was being managed.

What does chambers management actually involve? To some barristers it is simply the organisation of tenants in a particular set.

To others it means more and includes the relationship with the senior clerk/practice manager and even some areas of the administrative systems run by the senior clerks. Some think it involves all these aspects plus forward planning and development of the chambers.

Normally management issues are not at the forefront of a busy barrister's mind. This is natural because compared with commercial and industrial organisations there is not the same need to consider management issues.

As sole practitioners and self-employed individuals, up until recently they have not had to co-ordinate the way their practices work or control the work of large teams below them.

Unfortunately, like it or not, management is becoming more important. The report by the Bar Standards' Review Body, Blueprint for the Bar, did not duck the issue and addressed many of the problems of chambers management.

Many barristers like to compare and contrast their situation with that of solicitors. They then say that although there may be a need for planning and management in solicitors practices, it does not apply to barristers in the same way.

The comparison with solicitors is valid in many ways. The argument, though, that the commonality of drawings in law firms – where this exists – is a unifying factor in a solicitors' practice may raise a smile on the face of many managing partners in law firms.

There is a commonality of purpose in coming together as a set of chambers, although it may not be as strong as in a law practice.

Some solicitors' firms have had to look at planning and management either because of increasing competition or because of the Legal Aid Board's requirements for franchising. But solicitors are now beginning to expect to see the improvements occurring in their own practices reflected in the way the Bar operates.

Another factor that needs to be considered is that solicitors' practices generally deal with lay clients and barristers deal with professional clients. Lay clients in a solicitor's practice often do not have the ability to influence management changes in quite the same way as some of the regulatory bodies such as the Legal Aid Board.

A set may be different, as a large proportion of the instructions may come from a small source or a number of solicitors' firms. Changes in one of these solicitors' practices could have a knock-on effect on barristers' practices. Consequently, barristers will come under pressure to introduce management changes in chambers. They may also need to consider their relationship with professional clients.

The busy practitioner at the Bar who is faced with such pressures may wonder where to turn. In fact, little has been written to help barristers who want to address management issues in their set. Early reports commissioned by the Bar Council, although controversial, have proved useful.

Chambers need more help and advice. To that end, the Bar Council has commissioned Central Law Training to help develop management guidelines for chambers.

These guidelines, which are now well advanced, give models or approaches that chambers may find useful for their own particular set of circumstances.

These models are not set in stone but will undoubtedly be helpful. Hopefully the work of the Bar Council will result in further material being produced that will not only be useful today but will help stimulate new thinking for the next century.