Small and perfectly formed

Guy Fitzmaurice vists Barnards Inn Chambers, an upcoming set which is determined to buck the 'bigger is better' trend

When people feel threatened, they tend to stick together. Perhaps that is why, faced with such an uncertain future, some sets of barristers' chambers are choosing to grow and grow, and the first 100-tenant set is becoming a distinct possibility. But the 'strength in numbers' philosophy is not one that everybody shares. Barnards Inn Chambers, a set formed only last year, believes that current evolutionary changes dictate the opposite – that small is beautiful.

"The first casualty when you expand is communication," says director of chambers Andrea Kennedy, "and in our book, that is the biggest of all ills. Sets that grow too big run the risk of losing touch with their clients, of sacrificing quality at the altar of quantity."

Barnards Inn has a high ratio of clerks to barristers – roughly one to five. They decry the 'us and them' mentality that has grown up between clerks and barristers in some sets.

Says Kennedy: "Our clerks are central to the management of the practice. Their input sets the tone for the rest of chambers. They may not be propping up the bar at the local pub anymore, drumming up business with the outdoor clerks, but they work their tails off managing their barristers' diaries.

"They are at the mercy of listings officers who can throw off painstakingly balanced schedules with one telephone call. They are almost always the ones to field verbal attacks from irate solicitors. At the same time, they have to deal with jammed fax machines, negotiate and chase fees, and lug documents around. It is hard work."

Head of chambers Michael Bowles describes the clerks as "management" and the barristers as "workers".

Barristers who are out of touch with their clerks are not likely to be on commercially rewarding terms with their clients. Solicitors are having to become more accountable to their lay clients, and that is having a knock-on effect on the Bar.

Kennedy is well-placed to know what solicitors want. She qualified at the California Bar and has spent the last 12 years in litigation, training and administration at UK solicitors firms.

Bowles likes having Kenn-edy on the management team because, "as a lawyer, she can deal with solicitors on a professional level, which, with the best will in the world, the traditional senior clerk can't do".

She says: "There are about five or six effective marketing measures that any chambers can take – such as producing newsletters, providing speakers. What makes the difference is the follow-up, what you do afterwards. Memories are very short in business and you have to work to keep the relationship going."

Changing times are forcing barristers and solicitors not only to communicate more effectively but also to reassess their respective roles with regard to each other – a continual balancing act. That means, says chambers administrator David Rickwood, that "solicitors are doing a lot more preparatory work on cases. They are also very careful about getting prices agreed up front".

The smaller the chambers, the more important it is to get recruitment decisions right: "You have to make sure that you attract the right quality people. A pupil here is a potential tenant from day one. We used to be able to think in terms of 'a new barrister won't do any harm'. Now we have to ask ourselves 'will they do any good?' It is not fair to get youngsters to do all the sweeping up work if you are not in a position to advance their careers."

Though Bowles believes there is a real danger the Bar might wither from the bottom, he has no qualms about its longevity, even when he estimates that it will shrink by as much as 30 per cent over the next five years.

"For structural reasons, good barristers will always survive, even pitted against good solicitor-advocates. Apart from anything else, there is a public interest issue at stake, because the smaller solicitors firms will fold if the referral Bar folds." But the Bar may well become a transfer profession, with budding advocates cutting their teeth as solicitors first. It would certainly do no harm for barristers to be more aware of what solicitors expect of them.

"A trade union as much as a professional body, the Bar has to fight for its weaker members, and that has weakened its case as a whole," he says. He believes that any improvements have come about more by accident than design. The Lord Chancellor's Department has certainly not provided any leadership. "The LCD is about as Treasury-led as it is possible for a department to be. They have been a great disappointment."

The chambers has all the regular computer paraphernalia, but does not see a reason to be networked. "We always try to think as corporately as we can, but, at the end of the day, we are still individual practitioners. Networking sounds jazzy, but it doesn't add much of value. In terms of client confidentiality, it can even be a bad thing. The point is we are small enough to be able to talk to each other," says Bowles.

Time will tell whether there is going to be room for both types of chambers in the Bar of the future. Bowles believes that "there will be a tendency for clients to expect the mega-sets to cater to their every need. We are not setting out to provide that sort of service. What we are saying is 'we do what we do, and we do it well.' What is important for any set is that they have a clear sense of purpose. It may sound very Thatcherite, but sets are going to have to become leaner and meaner. Fumbling on and hoping for the best simply won't work."