Heated debate on management issue

Chris Fogarty reports

THE BAR has been attacked by a leading City lawyer for remaining inefficient and arrogant despite the current debate over the need for chambers to be run more effectively.

Addressing 140 clerks, practice managers and barristers at The Lawyer's second annual seminar on leadership and management issues for chambers, Herbert Smith litigation partner David Gold warned chambers that a superficial reorganisation may not achieve anything of substance.

Referring to the ongoing controversy over who should head chambers administration – senior clerks or practice managers – he said that solicitors were not concerned about the job title of who they were dealing with, but rather the individuals themselves and how they treated clients. "It's all about quality," said Gold. "We like to deal with pleasant people."

He complained that both he and his clients had been handled with little more than contempt by some barristers and he said he had witnessed others spending up to an hour searching for a brief on their untidy desks.

Chambers needed to be run efficiently to ensure barristers were neither over-booked nor over-worked, Gold continued. He also stressed the need for chambers to provide honest information about the skills of their tenants.

Gold added that his firm spent "millions" each year on the Bar and said that he was sick of some chambers administrators' attitudes towards fees. "We do not want to deal with someone who thinks he is the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a bad day," he said.

The Herbert Smith litigation partner's comments followed speeches by Hardwicke Building chief executive Anthony Wells, Fountain Court head of chambers Peter Scott QC, 2 Hare Court practice manager Julia Hornor and 4 Stone Buildings senior clerk David Goddard. While Wells and Hornor both agreed with Goddard's claim that "barristers are probably the most difficult people in the world to manage", there was little agreement about the way forward.

In defence of his traditional role, Goddard, vice-chair of the Institute of Barristers Clerks, warned of the dangers of downgrading the work of clerks by bringing in an outsider to concentrate on management.

"Do not underestimate the benefits of a traditional clerk or overestimate what an outsider with a paper qualification can do," he warned.

Hornor, who works alongside senior clerk Martin Smith at 2 Hare Court, said it was possible for practice managers and senior clerks to run chambers together. But Wells argued that dual control seldom worked. He added that chambers had to throw out poorly performing barristers. "The Bar is a service business, and the overriding concern should be to provide a first-class service for clients," he said.

Scott told the seminar that chambers needed to adopt a semi-corporate regime backed up by a constitution that had real teeth to ensure that tenants worked together towards an agreed set of goals.

"I think there is a tendency towards corporate development, but I hope it would never overtake the individual approach," he said.

The speeches were followed by a heated question and answer session which demonstrated the level of concern among chambers' administrators about the impact of the ongoing debate about their role.

"The profession is in crisis," said Christopher Berry, senior clerk at 11 Stone Buildings, the chambers of Michael Beckman QC. "People are unhappy about dealing with the reality of that," he said.