A perfect storm brews at the bar

I am writing this on a Sunday morning in my flat in The Temple. The Temple is a great place at weekend – quiet and serene, a lovely place to be. But the bar is far from quiet and serene. Many are fearful of whether they have a secure future and whether they will be able to afford to live, particularly if they work in areas such as Crime or those in the area of Family Law which are publicly funded.

I went to a Northern Circuit dinner to congratulate a member who had been made a High Court Judge last night. A great occasion, and inevitably one for reminiscence as to how the bar used to be.

Events like that cause many of us to reflect. This is a wonderful profession but things are changing quickly. Those reliant on public funds know only too well that big changes are on the way.  The changes effected by the LSA 2007 and, for instance, by the reforms which will affect civil costs and legal aid are all drivers that point to a change in the way that all, or most of us , will practice.  

The bar as an institution has always been quite conservative. It rightly prides itself on independence and excellence and of course one of our selling points has always been that solicitors and clients are able to make an informed choice as to who should be their trial lawyer.

The competition between us, even within chambers, is a powerful driver for excellence and the fact that we are still quite a small profession means that peer group pressure has a real impact in terms of maintaining standards of professional conduct.

The excellence, independence and camaraderie are all features that we want to maintain. Many of those to whom I speak believe we should stay the way we are, as much as possible. This they say gives us the best hope of retaining all that is best about the bar. I disagree.

The fact is that although chambers has worked as a basic means of organising ourselves it’s unlikely to work as well  for the future if left unchanged. Increasingly many chambers have tried to adopt a corporate style –  but without significant changes to the structure of our operating model we will simply fall behind our competitors.

Increasingly we need to invest in our future – an anathema to many barristers whose main concern is generally to keep the percentage taken as chambers contribution as low as possible.

We need to look at taking on more support for our practices, be more professional about the way we manage ourselves and take more individual responsibility for our practice development. The competition in the future – certainly at the more junior levels  – will come from businesses structured as an ABS, LDPs and solicitors but also from barristers who choose to organise themselves more efficiently and look to become firms of trial lawyers, maybe employing trainees and junior ( and not so junior) barristers.

Approached properly, looking at alternative ways to practice may also mean that we can alleviate some of the problems of those who have qualified at the bar but cannot get pupillage. As firms of trial lawyers develop and the need for support grows then so will the opportunity to at least get on the first rung of the ladder – with more paralegal and training opportunities.

Anyone who saw my last post will know how clear I am that we need to do more to help those  in this position. I suspect that one reason for not taking on more pupils at present is that there is concern that we may not want to commit to taking on more tenants.  

However as more solicitors employ these new starters as advocates for the smaller cases, CMCs etc. we will find the bar not only losing work, but losing influence over those who we should be seeking to work with – namely the trial lawyers of tomorrow.

As we look to the future the inns needs to be looking at what their role is.  There is a perfect storm developing which may affect many of us at the bar.

Both for ourselves and for the barristers of the future it’s up to us all to do all that we can to make sure the  future is weatherproofed.

Gerard McDermott QC