In a recent Leader article, The Lawyer queried the bar's “continued fascination” with chief executives. Viewing such chambers interlopers as a passing phenomenon fails to recognise the benefits of general management to the bar and the vision of many leading sets in seeking to shape the future of their branch of the profession.
The early failure of a number of chief executive posts was quickly seized upon by various commentators as evidence of this role's organisational inappropriateness to the bar. However, these failures were of two distinct types.
There were a handful of appointees who attempted to impose military discipline or commercial hierarchies within weeks of their arrival. They failed to recognise certain attributes of the world of the bar that distinguish it from other walks of life. This type of failure was no different to any other where the 'fit' between appointee and employer just wasn't right.
There were other failures where the chambers concerned had simply jumped on to the chief executive bandwagon without considering what this would mean. This is the 'rainmaker' approach, most often adopted by sets in real difficulty. As a group they are dysfunctional, as an enterprise they are non-viable and their collective powers of decision-making are drawn directly from the behaviour of ostriches. These sets were quick to discover that their woes did not evaporate overnight. Some then set about addressing their more fundamental problems, while others got rid of their new arrival and moved on to try others panaceas – presumably including clairvoyants and essence of shark fin.
The introduction of general management is not easy in any sector. In addition to the wider changes necessary, there have always been groups that see their interests as likely to be eroded. However, once established, general management is never then abolished in favour of a reintroduction of governance based on tribal groupings.
In common with many professional service providers, barristers chambers are encountering choppy waters after years of smooth sailing. Small, backward-looking setups are fast losing their fight with progress. Larger or niche sets are realising competitive advantage… whoops, I mean continued and growing briefs and instructions from clients. All of this is against a backdrop of huge change in the provision of legal services, together with specific issues such as conditional fee agreements, graduated fees, the squeeze on publicly funded work, and so on.
Chambers need both sound management and effective leadership. In some cases both are present by the happy coincidence of a chief clerk who has the ability and the time available and a head of chambers with the inclination and time to spend on chambers matters. More commonly, the incessant twin demands of the diary and pressure on senior practitioners mean that the development and progress of chambers is neglected.
Most chambers are now sizeable enterprises in terms of financial turnover and personnel, and also the complexity of the work. Factor into this the growing demands of the system and it is a matter of surprise to most newcomers that management reform has not been necessary sooner.
High-quality practices have rarely come easily to the bar. In the past it has needed an able industrious advocate and careful cultivation by clerks. All of this will continue to be necessary in the future, but in addition there must be focused marketing, shrewd financial management, sound service standards and effective client care – and all within a quality-assured environment. Many chambers will be managed well by chief executives with a clerking background, but not by clerks. That is not to downgrade the clerking role, but how many construction companies are run by engineers, hospitals by nurses or supermarkets by checkout staff?
Effective management will be vital for the successful chambers of the future. Where the key personnel are drawn from is much less important than making sure the individuals have the necessary abilities to support individual practices and to further develop chambers to complement these.