Flying the flag of legal standards

The emerging need for help and advice on chambers management began to take shape with the release of the report to the Bar Council in November 1993 of Work of the Young Bar.

A key recommendation in this report was that the council should publish guidance to encourage barristers to meet the high standards of practice expected of them.

Following endorsements by Lord Alexander, chair of the Bar Standards Review Body, in early summer this year, the Bar Council instructed Central Law Training to write practice management guidelines for the Bar based on management standards already drafted.

A small team of consultants met to agree their approach to this exciting challenge. Before we could address guidelines, the draft standards needed some tightening up. We were also asked to take into account any relationship with the Bar code of conduct.

Against this background we aimed to provide help to everyone, conscious of the diversity of working practices in chambers. We intended to offer advice only a little ahead of the well-managed chambers which needed to be "user friendly" and practical.

The guidelines were to be more than just an explanation of the standards. They would also give illustrations of what we saw as the current best practice in the country.

Practice management standards are covered under the following key areas:

chambers organisation and management, ranging from strategic planning to developing a marketing plan;

client care;

financial management;

managing staff;

management of briefs, instructions and communications.

Each section sets out the standards and is followed by the relevant guideline.

As we progressed in our research we regularly returned to our benchmark of not moving too far ahead of well-organised chambers. We conducted extensive interviews, many in chambers, to see examples of practice first hand.

We were very encouraged by the high degree of co-operation we received. Indeed, the work could not have been completed so thoroughly without extensive help from clerks and practice managers. Not only did they make time available to go through checklists and questionnaires, but we were sent, in confidence, examples of: constitutions; marketing and client care letters; budgets; cash flow forecasts; forms for job descriptions and appraisal interviewing; checklists for control of briefs; and paper work.

We then included some key areas not specifically covered under practice management standards. These sections were included in the whole document, Practice Management for the Bar, in order to present chambers with a complete guide on good practice.

They cover:

discrimination and equal opportunities;

pupillage and entry into practice;

conduct before, at and after court.

We were ready to be challenged on our work through "validation" meetings with representatives of barristers, clerks and practice managers. We were challenged, but always positively. We had included examples of how to conduct client surveys and prepare for client seminars.

Were we giving away too many trade secrets? We were confident that although the guidelines contained many examples of how to set about doing a certain task, those chambers with the highest standards, providing a consistent quality service, would still be able to pull away from those who were, in our view, below the management standards we think should be attained.

We were ready to go back to the drawing board if necessary. Imagine our relief when during one of the workshop validation days, Anthony Barker QC, head of chambers at 5 Fountain Court, Birmingham, one of the largest sets in the UK, picked up the draft and said: "If only I had seen this five years ago."

After the launch by Peter Goldsmith QC on 5 December, Practice Management for the Bar is being issued to all chambers by the Bar Council. It now needs to be implemented and that is the hardest part. Stephen Graham, vice-chair of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks, who has been highly supportive, is aware of the importance of the role of the clerks in this next age. He looks forward to receiving what he hopes will be a positive reaction as barristers, clerks and practice managers work together to implement the standards and raise the quality of service provided by the Bar.