In almost 20 years working at the Bar, we’ve seen significant changes in how barristers work and how chambers operate. As with any evolutionary tale, if you don’t adapt, you die.

Competition, client demands and increasingly expectations are the prerogative drivers of change in any market.

The Bar used to be a reactive business model.

The term used by any other industry outside of the Bar would be ‘account management’.

There are a lot of people who can ‘account manage’ – with a bit of charm and organisation, that ship can be safely sailed – and for a price, competently steered.

But then there were rule changes – chambers could now be more proactive in marketing themselves. But no self-respecting chambers or practitioner would muddy themselves with such terminology – surely there was no such need for such depravity, if you were good enough, surely the work would just come to you. Moral of the story…? Don’t bet on Shirley.

Now ok, that’s a cheap take on an Airplane movie gag, but there’s more truth in that than fiction.

That’s how the Bar worked – for hundreds of years. The expectations of both barristers and clerks were very much set and woe betide anyone who would say otherwise.

But as societies evolve, so do businesses – chambers have always been a business – just not always understood in that way both internally and externally.

When we first started working with the Bar there were a small number of ex-forces individuals who worked in a financial/administrative function. On the face of it that was understandable – the culture of an officer, say in the army, working with soldiers is very akin to the culture (then) of a barristers chambers. There was a perceived ability to be able to manage up as well as down. However, there was invariably one major elephant in the room – a lack of business skills or commercial awareness. This is an observation not a slight. If you’ve left the forces to come straight into a chambers, de facto of your career, you just haven’t had much commercial exposure – which increasingly chambers were crying out for.

A true senior executive, job title aside, be it a CEO or Chambers Director, should never be a real overhead to the business. They should always generate multiples of their salary earnings, however calculated. Invariably when we first started doing this work nearly 20 years ago, individuals in situ were a direct cost to the business because they were more Operations / Administrative Managers – nothing was being fed into the bottom line by them being there.

A chambers can hire a CEO for a £100k salary – they can also pay up to £250k to find one. And as a rule of thumb, they will stay in post, if successful, for circa 3-5 years. There are of course exceptions to the rule, including at the Bar, but having placed 30+ individuals in these roles up and down the country over the last two decades, it is rare they’re still in situ after 5 years. But this is the nature of the beast and can be found in any industry sector.

If you look at any industry there are many similarities – for the purposes of this piece, we will look at one.

Businesses have historically always, always, had the misnomer; the biggest billers need to go into management.

For years there has been a disconnect with this thinking.

The skill set to be a big biller and to manage people effectively – are two completely different and unrelated skill sets.

But law firms do it. Accountancy firms do it.

And so historically, has the Bar.

Heads of Chambers vary between leaders and figure heads. The same can be said for Senior Clerks. There was a notable gearshift many moons ago where Senior Clerks were then (and continue to be now) expected to be Sales, Management, Finance and Administration.

If you had really only been one of those things, how could you possibly be expected to overnight be all things to all people?

The uncomfortable truth is you can’t be – and we saw many clerks, who had been in roles for years unceremoniously tossed aside for not making the ‘mark’ – quite often unfairly as the new marker was never attainable.

If you fall into the bracket of ‘new business’ you invariably don’t have the softer people skills required for ‘account management’. If you are ‘sales’ focused you invariably are not ‘management’ orientated. If you’re an account manager you invariably don’t have the tenacity and fearlessness to be a ‘big biller’.

So what to do?

The majority of clerks we’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years have agreed if there was one aspect of their skillset that was possibly less developed than they would like, it would be business skills.

Incoming from stage right, the Chief Executive / Chambers Director.

To the uninitiated, clerks are quite akin to those on a trading floor of an investment bank. It takes years to be an asset in the clerks’ room. The subtleties and nuances of the role, the complexity of spinning more plates than a street performer in Covent Garden could handle takes years to perfect.

What possible impact can a CEO have on the clerks’ room, especially when they’re only going to be there for 3-5 years compared to the 15-20 years+ any given chambers’ clerks have been in place?

On the specifics and technicalities of clerking, not much.

But on injecting business acumen, introducing the concept of cross-selling chambers to clients, financial rigour, sophisticated marketing and business development ideas and initiatives and high-level people management – how long have you got?

A CEO can be transformative to chambers.

A CEO can also be incredibly divisive and an enormous cost burden to a chambers.

 So how have, and how can, a chambers get it right?

It’s quite simple really.

Does your chambers view their clerks and staff as business partners? If the answer is yes (which it should be) then you need to find a CEO who shares the same ethos. The CEO is nothing without the support of the clerks – just a highly paid report writer who colour codes their pie charts and is gone within a year.

As mentioned in our piece last month, clerks are the lifeblood of chambers – without clerks, there would be no Bar. More fool a CEO if you think a chambers will back you over their lifeblood if you don’t deliver.

It is a well known fact the best business mangers surround themselves with people as good if not better than them – how true it that at the Bar? Or does it all rest on one set of shoulders leaving chambers vulnerable and exposed if that individual left?

The most successful senior executives at the Bar are, and have always been, exceptional people managers and visionaries who have taken delight in bringing all those around them, with them on that journey. These roles are incredibly tough and demanding – even more so if you don’t have a legal or professional services background – we haven’t placed anyone without such exposure. The most successful individuals have also not been seen as the holy grail of change and have been supported with staff members to roll up sleeves and get stuck in – but not paid £six figures to change light-bulbs.

A senior executive can play an enormous role in up-skilling clerks and staff members. Clerks and staff members in turn are the only ones who can make a CEO’s strategy a reality.

Cultural fit is the number one aspect, when hiring a CEO, to get right. But to be able to do that effectively a chambers has to understand the detail of the glue that binds them all together– how many have proficiently looked at that process thoroughly? Still not enough in our view. Too many could be vulnerable if the proverbial tree is shaken.

And is it possible to have a successful administration when Mr, Maam and Sir are the staple pleasantries? That’s not to say clerks and support staff in that environment are not profoundly able – moreover the point is how can a chambers really benefit in this day and age when on the one hand clients are offered the epitome of ‘chinese walls’ while conversely the administration suffers from a Ha-Ha wall. Just a thought…

Not all sets need or want a CEO/Chambers Director but most who have hired an Admin/Finance Director have benefited from this additional professional resource.

When we first started moving barristers between chambers nearly 20 years ago, it was seen as a very ungentlemanly/unwomanly thing to do, there was very much a stigma attached to moving, with many fearing a lack of loyalty being displayed – and surely those that wanted to move were failed practitioners anyway? At best, that is naïve.

Practitioners who we meet who bellyache about their clerks are immediately shown the door – if you haven’t worked out after 10+ years it’s a two way street, then we can’t assist you, let alone feel comfortable in representing you. What are you doing to market your practice? What are you doing to be proactive? Find a barrister with some initiative and you’ll find a clerk willing to help them appear more credible in the market.

However, the number one reason high profile practitioners come to us seeking a move – is a lack of practice development, or certainly any substance in any meetings that do happen.

Is this the clerks’ fault, or the chambers?

How much actual time are clerks (and indeed your clerks) given to perform this essential task?

So………

What defines a successful administration within a chambers?

Each set will have their own interpretation but as a guide from the myriad of barristers, senior executives, clerks and the full spectrum of administrative staff we’ve dealt with on a daily basis, the following could be used as a checklist: –

 

A chambers that provides a platform where clerks and support staff are valued as business partners.

 

A chambers, that has gone through the process, has hired a CEO/Chambers Director who has a professional services background and who views the clerks and support staff as business partners.

 

The chambers’ CEO/Chambers Director possesses exceptional people management skills, to the point where they can influence the commercial awareness of all chambers’ fee earning members and non-fee earning staff.

 

Finance is a separate and professional function within chambers.

 

IT is a separate and professional function within chambers.

 

Marketing is a separate and professional function within chambers where marketing is understood to be more than just organising events and processing submissions for directories.

 

A successful administration will be sophisticated networkers, will be so comfortable in working a room they can educate others internally on how to naturally be more proficient.

 

A successful administration will execute sophisticated marketing and business development initiatives where everyone one involved is aware of the end game.

 

A successful administration will keep aged debt to a minimum through financial rigour that is adhered to.

 

A successful CEO/Chambers Director is not a direct overhead to the business – moreover, they will pay for themselves many times over.

 

A successful Senior Clerk is not a direct overhead to the business – moreover, they will pay for themselves many times over.

 

Can you or your chambers tick all of these?