A tough niche to carve

Open season has been declared on the greatest British institutions – the monarchy remains under fire, the House of Lords is firmly in New Labour's sights and many barristers' chambers are reinventing themselves to respond to the market.

Chambers began hiring practice managers in the rush to become more business-like, but results have been mixed. Where some have doggedly persevered and succeeded, others have failed spectacularly.

The new breed of managers faces an identity crisis. As well as practice managers there is a host of relatively new posts, such as chambers administrators, chambers development and client care and operations managers. Many roles overlap.

One senior clerk at a London set illustrates how confusing the situation can be: “We have practice managers, but they are more like the junior clerks. They do, in effect, manage the practice day-to-day, but we also have a practice development manager who is more like practice managers at other chambers.”

Joanna Poulton, who is jointly practice director and senior clerk at 9 Gough Square, says: “The job title is loaded with significance. I hold this joint title to give out the right message to solicitors.

“The post was created for me when I joined 18 months ago and it played a crucial part in my decision to take the role.”

She explains that being called senior clerk ends any confusion as to who to speak to, but with an MBA she is clearly part of the new wave of well-qualified personnel entering chambers to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of barristers, solicitors and clients.

There is also a traditional clerks' department at 9 Gough Square, which takes on the daily running of practicalities such as managing the diary. This, Poulton says, keeps them too busy to get involved in the strategic planning of chambers.

“Clerks often do not have the aptitude or training to meet the needs of senior solicitors, who have undergone serious changes in the recent past,” she says.

Poulton believes the cliched scenario of senior clerks and practice managers in direct conflict occurs only when roles are not adequately defined. “There was a mafia of senior clerks who felt threatened by practice managers and sought to discredit them, but we have moved past that. I deal with many capable senior clerks.”

Christine Kings, practice manager at Doughty Street Chambers, was one of the first practice managers on the scene in 1990 when the chambers was first established.

She is lucky, she says, because in helping to set up the chambers she also had a defined role to step into. It is a luxury many subsequent practice managers have not enjoyed.

Kings says many sets brought in practice managers hoping their presence would bring miraculous changes, but forgetting that this would mean changes for themselves.

“Practice managers need the support and commitment of senior barristers in the chambers. Otherwise, it can often be a frustrating experience which soon ends with a sacking or resignation,” explains Kings.

“If there is not one person who heads the line management, sooner or later the senior clerk and practice manager will meet head-on and waste a lot of time going to the chambers management committee to sort out their differences.”

Kings points out that many of the most effective traditional senior clerks share many personal attributes with successful practice managers.

“There is no need for a 'two camps' mentality of senior clerks versus practice managers. They can have a lot in common, such as the ability to talk to barristers about their performance,” she says.

“But there may be fewer high-calibre senior clerks coming in because the brightest candidates with an uncle in chambers now have more options. More are entering other areas, such as IT and marketing.”