The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report on the competitiveness of the professions has sparked much debate recently. It can be added to a list of issues now confronting lawyers, including barristers. The relative merits of the individual debates aside, what is clear is that the competitive landscape for barristers is changing fundamentally. While mixed-profession partnerships might seem to be a desirable “next step” for certain firms of solicitors, barristers are being forced to consider fundamental aspects of their structure and image.
Much has been written over the past year about how the marketing of professional services has come of age. It is a comparable journey upon which the bar has now embarked, whether it recognises it or not. Received wisdom is that solicitors have now moved on from their early preoccupation with “quick-fix” logos, corporate brollies and a scattergun approach to direct-mail marketing. They now understand that marketing is much more about appropriate market positioning, increasing market share and improving profitability.
It is now the turn of barristers to realise that they are running professional businesses as well as practices and to begin to come to terms with the business demands. Marketing now regularly appears on the agenda. In essence, barristers are beginning to recognise the importance of creating a competitive edge that holds for the set as much as for individual barristers.
However, the success of the bar's transition to a more commercial outlook will depend to a significant extent on its ability to develop an understanding of the idea of a chambers' “corporate identity”. What binds together the individuals who make up a business, and why do they choose to work together rather than in isolation or with anyone else? Clear, convincing communication of this to the outside world is central to developing a position in the marketplace that is unique – why any one organisation is different from its competitors and better. As part of understanding this, names are changing too. Where once there was addresses only, there are now a whole variety of offerings – ranging from those paying respects to past legal luminaries such as “Wilberforce” and “Blackstone”, to the more abstract “Matrix” and “Zenith” – and of course my own Hogarth Chambers. (Hogarth was an 18th century painter and engraver whose works were widely pirated. As a notable victim of piracy, he lobbied hard in support of the first copyright act to protect artistic works.)
Indeed, in view of the current trend for chambers to grow larger – whether by recruitment or merger – the issue of creating a competitive edge that holds for the set as much as for individual barristers, the issue of the “corporate identity” – in a sense, a brand or housemark – is likely to be an important distinguishing feature between sets.
There is an interesting irony here. Barristers have, in theory, much less that ties them together than other people in business – no corporate structures, no partnership deeds (only the non-mandatory constitution), no restrictive covenants and short notice periods – so the development of an identity takes on an additional importance. As a statement of a set's commonality of purpose, a strong identity communicates important messages: “This is the reason we are in business together; this is how we see the market; this is where we are in it; and this is how we can best succeed together.” Although on this analysis the corporate identity is of paramount importance in drawing a set of barristers together and driving them forward with a clear, common goal, branding is a concept of intangibles that some may misunderstand.
It remains to be seen whether the bar will learn wisely from the experience of its solicitor colleagues. But there is no doubt that the rewards will be significant for those who do.
Christopher Morcom QC is joint head of newly-merged Hogarth Chambers