That certain barristers' chambers are facing a crisis over attracting clients has been an open secret for some time. Any solicitor who has regular dealings with the Bar will have been the target of various attempts by chambers to market themselves more effectively and to raise the profile of their members.
The chambers most affected are those with a non-specialist and general commercial practice. In some sets the problem is affecting senior juniors most severely.
The crisis is being caused by several factors. For example, the level of legal aid rates is having a serious effect on profitability and larger solicitors' firms and their clients are becoming increasingly reluctant to use juniors for advice as well as during the pre-trial stages of litigation.
These pressures are increasing. Solicitors now have the right of audience in the High Court. While only around 420 have taken advantage of this right, the number will inevitably increase. There is also significant pressure from clients for “one-stop shop” legal advice and for litigation costs to be reduced.
Larger law firms increasingly handle all advisory work in-house and there are a number of areas in which many of them can claim greater experience than members of the Bar. The larger practices also have access to greater manpower and IT resources than even the largest sets of chambers.
The implementation of the recommendations in Lord Woolf's Access to Justice report will result in a simplification of pleadings, and the Bar will be required to make a smaller contribution to court proceedings.
Even without civil justice reform, the focus of dispute resolution is changing. Clients are now aware of processes other than litigation, which is perceived as expensive and time-consuming.
Barristers' dispute resolution training is primarily in the field of pleadings, evidence and advocacy rather than in the science of dispute resolution itself. As a result, the focus tends to be on doing the best job for the client in the context of the litigation or arbitration rather than seeing the dispute in its full commercial context and looking for alternative and creative solutions.
So what steps are chambers taking to try to deal with this situation? The approach has been mixed. Some sets have put an emphasis on management. Practice managers have become popular and they have usurped some of the traditional clerk's function of organising the internal management of chambers. They have also tried to achieve more effective internal working and to implement marketing strategies on behalf of chambers as a whole.
Other sets have tried to convey a more up-to-date image by installing a telephone operator and proper waiting rooms, while in some cases premises have been modernised. Many commercial sets now have an out-of-hours service.
There are chambers' cocktail parties for solicitors, lunches with the clerks and other forms of direct marketing, although many barristers still seem to find socialising with solicitors awkward. For example, it is correct etiquette for barristers to shake hands with solicitors but not with each other, and greetings between members of the two professions is an event often accompanied by a certain amount of trauma on both sides.
Chambers brochures have been around for some time but generally not as part of any coordinated marketing strategy. A number of sets send out specialised material detailing cases in which their members have featured. Some barristers are taking steps to publicise themselves, taking part in activities such as conference speaking.
But are these marketing efforts working? Many chambers have raised their profiles and some barristers have made themselves better known in their specialist areas by speaking at seminars or conferences. Most barristers' clerks, however, would admit that the main problem of attracting work to good quality but unknown jun iors in general commercial sets has not been solved.
In finding a more effective solution, the Bar remains hampered by the inherent tension between the need to publicise a chambers as a whole and the fact that chambers comprise individuals who are not in partnership with each other but in competition.
Effective marketing must address this problem. The starting point is for barristers in the same chambers to promote each other. Successful barristers who have day-to-day contact with solicitors are the most likely to bring work to other members of chambers.
Although it is in the interests of all members of a set that colleagues have sustainable earnings, barristers do not often make serious attempts to cross-sell others in their chambers.
One means of cross-selling is to offer to introduce a junior into a case at no additional cost to the client. This can, however, be difficult to accommodate when earnings are not pooled.
In the long term, these problems may be subsumed into a new dilemma caused by the advent of the multi-disciplinary partnership. The Labour Party has said that, if it comes to power, it will give priority to this issue.
If the rules preventing partnerships between solicitors and barristers and between both professions and accountants are abolished, then the challenge will become an entirely different one. But in the meantime, barristers need to take a greater hand in promoting their chambers and their colleagues than they do at present.