Chambers' reforming zeal puts clerks' jobs on line

Ask a senior barristers' clerk about the future structure of the Bar and the chances are they will draw an analogy with football.

The season, they say, is reaching its climax, and a couple of indifferent results can mean the difference between staying in the Premier League and relegation. The first casualty of a failed season, they ruefully point out, is all too often the manager.

Senior clerks are under constant pressure to produce the right results, which is only natural given they are running a business. But this season is moving at a particularly frenetic pace and there have already been an alarming number of casualties.

Michael Martin, senior clerk at Cloisters chambers, is on prolonged leave and is understood to be taking legal advice on his situation.

And there are reports circulating in the Bar of further upheavals. Two sources told The Lawyer that the entire administration team of one set are to be placed on six month contracts and told to reapply for their posts. “These stories have been flying around the Bar for about six weeks,” says one clerk at that particular set, although he strongly denies there is any truth in them.

There have been seven departures of senior clerks from prominent sets in the past five months.

The highly respected Michael Farrell, touted as a good bet to be the first provincial chair of the Institute of Barristers Clerks (IBC), was ousted from his post as senior clerk at Manchester set 18 St John Street in December.

Alan Smith, of 1 Crown Office Row, Tony Day, the old-school clerk of 12 King's Bench Walk, Robin Butchard, of the largest set in the country, St Philips' Chambers in Birmingham, and Michael Price of Lindsay Burn's Queen Elizabeth Building have also left their posts.

Most recently, Jason Pithers, senior clerk at 3/4 South Square, decided to leave the world of clerking altogether to pursue an alternative career in the US.

Paul Shrubsall, the highly-regarded senior clerk at One Essex Court, says: “It is an indication of greater mobility at the Bar. I think chambers are more competitive in seeking out people.

“They are taking a more proactive and aggressive view, and although there is no overt headhunting as yet, it is not far away.”

Some of the departing clerks, like Pithers, have themselves taken a proactive decision to move on, but others have been forced out of their posts. Three have legal action pending or under consideration – so what has been going wrong?

Many believe the increased pressure on clerks mirrors that across the profession as a whole. There is a real fear that the Bar is going to have to cut its numbers fairly substantially to survive, and, as Shrubsall explains: “The natural instinct of the Bar is to blame someone else.” In other words, the clerks.

One senior clerk says that criminal barristers in particular “are seeing a drop in real terms in their income per annum”.

“They are mindful of the hard times to come and want to minimise their liabilities, which is a very short-sighted approach,” he says.

Shrubsall cites an example from his time as chair of the IBC. He was approached for advice by a set of general common law chambers that wanted to attract City work, but had never questioned why it was not getting any.

“It is the product that is at fault, but the clerk becomes a casualty because of their [chambers'] perception of how well they are doing,” says Shrubsall.

“A set of chambers must accept its strengths and weakness and know what its market is,” he says.

But clerks are not entirely blameless. As Shrubsall acknowledges, many clerks, like their barristers, still operate in an insular world. “One of the problems with the old-style clerking system is that they [clerks] are very blinkered and never think about the outside world. They need to look at the outside business world and import it back in,” he says.

The role of senior clerk has changed dramatically in recent years. Traditionally they concentrated on the day-to-day running of barristers' diaries, bartering on fees and keeping existing clients happy.

These days, if he is to survive as chambers manager, the senior clerk must do all of these things and also develop new business, create a corporate brand for chambers, undertake extensive marketing, give senior barristers plenty of individual attention and get to grips with modern developments in business practice and information technology.

The majority now spend a great deal of time away from operational, hands-on clerking. Shrubsall, for example, spends only 25 per cent of his time running the diaries of his barristers. The rest is spent on financial management, marketing and business development.

“It's about how you do the clerking role and how you do marketing. Everything you do these days has to have added value and exceed the expectations of solicitors,” says Christine Kings, practice manager at Doughty Street Chambers.

And some sets have decided that their senior clerk is not up to the task. One senior clerk, for example, was unable even to work the printer.

Senior clerks are increasingly having to compete with a new breed of manager, often known as practice managers, chief executives or chambers directors, who are recruited for their commercial acumen, sometimes from other sectors such as advertising or health.

Both 39 Essex Street and One Crown Office Row are advertising for chambers directors. Suzanne Cosgrave, chambers director at Wilberforce Chambers, says: “I think it is a natural evolution in looking to complement the skills of clerks and the skills of the commercial world.”

Cosgrave and her senior clerk, Declan Redmond, work closely together on all aspects of chambers operation, from the overall chambers strategy through to developing the practices of members and the creation of a corporate brand for chambers.

But not all partnerships between clerks and chambers directors or practice managers have gone so smoothly. Some of the new breed have little or no experience of the law or the legal profession which can cause internal friction and, perhaps more significantly, pose problems when it comes to selling the chambers to a new client.

Clerks are keen to point out that a business development or marketing manager, whatever their title, needs to be able to understand the business to tailor the service to solicitors' wants.

John Taylor, senior clerk at Old Square Chambers, says adding more layers to the administrative hierarchy is not the answer.

“In the times we move in, with increased administration, the answer is not more chiefs but more Indians,” he says.

Many clerks argue that the solution lies in providing better education for clerks. Martin Griffiths, vice-chair of the IBC, says the IBC offers basic business training for very junior clerks and is working on plans to develop its own business management training scheme.

However, as the face of the Bar changes, many believe that clerks also have to be proactive and prepare themselves for reform, by getting to grips with IT, marketing, finance and business development skills.

At the end of the day, as one senior clerk points out, the Bar is small fry in commercial terms, and if sets and their clerks cannot organise themselves into efficient and competitive businesses, they simply will not survive.