12 December 2005
The Government's white paper on the future of legal services will open some fascinating doors for barristers. At long last the profession might be forced to realise that we are in the business of providing professional services. For those of us who enjoy the business aspect there will be many opportunities.
There are many features of barristers' practices that require consideration. We are governed by long-established institutions, but there may be aspects of that governance that have no place in modern life.
Recruitment might be an appropriate place to start modernising. There are few chambers that devote significant time to the selection of pupils, although many chambers are offering jobs for life. It is still regarded by some as bad form for a chambers to approach a barrister whom they think will complement their chambers' practice and invite them to join. The process is known as head-hunting in business, but castigated as 'poaching' by many barristers. Some barristers still consider it disloyal if a member leaves chambers to join another set, and yet that is surely a natural move if your present chambers is not providing a first-class business service. The ethos of the white paper should allow us to use recruitment consultants in a businesslike manner.
Another major aspect of the current problems facing barristers may be the chambers system itself. Barristers in private practice are self-employed and group together to share expenses. That can have significant effects. For example, the most recent recruit may have the same vote as the most senior barrister. This might not be a bad thing if the senior one is business-blind, but not if they have managed a successful chambers for years. The chamber's manager or director, often a non-lawyer, may have one of the best business opinions, but they might not have a vote. Change to the corporate structure now could prevent divisive problems ahead. This may well be permitted if the white paper proposals are implemented, and it is possible that successful chambers could become effective investment vehicles.
Efficient management within chambers would also be an area of improvement that might be highlighted by these new proposals. Good support staff are a major ingredient of success and are a significant element of the expense of running a good business. Some chambers still do not employ a full range of IT, marketing, public relations, fee-collection, seminar and lecturing staff in addition to the usual clerking and administration functions.
One of the major proposals in the white paper is to allow barristers to employ, or to be employed by, other professionals. It might be attractive to use that facility to allow us to improve our current service. For example, it might be possible to justify the employment of accountants, solicitors, barristers or paralegals to expand the nature and quality of our service.
If chambers were to be converted into an attractive investment vehicle, available for its own members to invest in, it might change all our perceptions about the significance of the performances of individual barristers. It would no longer be acceptable for individuals to perform below the standard of the chambers.
If some effective barristers' businesses were created in this way, they might then have the financial muscle to consolidate the position and importance of the truly specialist advocate within our litigation system. We could persuade all potential users of our service that we really do have something to offer: an efficient business providing truly professional services of the highest standard.
Bill Braithwaite QC, barrister, Exchange Chambers