60 seconds with Owen Lawrence

Feb 9th, 2018 by Hewetson & Co

Having been a clerk for almost 20 years, what’s been the biggest change you’ve witnessed within the profession and how do you see the role of clerks developing in the future?

The main difference is how much closer we now work with law firms as well as the decline of pink ribbon and reams of detailed instructions. The competition at the Bar is stronger than ever which means that it is vital that chambers invest in clerks who know and understand their business.

At 39 Essex Chambers the ‘us and them’ approach to clients from barristers no longer exists. When I started out, conversations took place solely between the clerk and the instructing solicitor. Clerks are now often required to know the whole legal team instructing Chambers, from the paralegals, associates (the future partners) through to the senior partners. The barristers become part of the legal team and are expected not just to know the law, but the particular industry and commercial relationships within the market place. This in itself also translates to the clerks’ working relationship with particular firms, where often the clerk will not only know who the solicitors’ preferred counsel is but also understand what the client is looking for and what they expect in the barrister that they instruct.

The other difference is the amount of international work we undertake and how so many jurisdictions use the English Bar by default.

Your chambers has gone through a number of exciting changes over recent years, what does the future hold for your chambers?

I strongly believe that chambers across the board will continue to grow in order to better service client needs. We are regularly contacted to provide counsel teams for many forms of litigation. At the moment, for example, I have six barristers instructed on an international arbitration running into a final hearing in October 2019. If we were a set of 50 barristers, this would mean that over 10% of our membership would be unavailable to service the rest of our clients’ instructions at that time. Fortunately 39 Essex has been very forward thinking in terms of growth and our membership currently stands at approaching 50 silks and over 80 juniors based in London, Singapore and KL. This means that we are rarely in a position where we are unable to provide suitable counsel. We have also recognised the need not to pigeon hole ourselves into one specialism and, as such, are seen by clients as a full service civil set. For us, being able to cross-sell across our many practice areas sets us apart from many of our competitors.

What trends have you seen in international and direct instructions for your members?

As a set we spend a lot of time visiting clients overseas. I often find myself talking clients through how straightforward it is to instruct a barrister and explaining our commercial approach to different billing arrangements/fee structures. As a result, we have seen a steady increase in International instructions over the last decade and more and more clients are using us for advice by default. The increase has particularly been evident from regional firms who are increasingly seeking out the Bar as they look to co-counsel in larger commercial disputes.

The other noticeable trend is the expectation nowadays for counsel to be anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, which often doesn’t make me the most popular person in the clerks room…

You were previously Chairman of the IBC Junior Clerks Committee (2012-2013) and since 2015 have regular mentions in the Legal 500. In an increasingly competitive market, what advice would you give to clerks developing their careers?

I think it is quite straightforward – be there, be seen, contribute, help people, talk to people (especially those standing on their own), build your network, build trust, be reliable and deliver high standards of service. Following this, people sometimes then say nice things about you to the directories. Saying that, I am regularly reminded at networking events that it is easy to slip into bad habits or become complacent and gravitating towards people you know. Networking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to people, particularly when you are starting out on your career, but at 39 we run regular ‘working the room’ training for all of our staff and any barristers that wish to attend (or are told to!) to help the process. And the more you do it, the easier it gets!

You are also an IBA Committee Member – what advantages have you found attending these conferences annually?

I attended my first IBA annual conference in Dubai in 2011 and it was clear that, as a clerk, having a significant number of your clients and perspective clients in the same place for five days can work to your advantage. I have attended every year since and the IBA has allowed me to visit parts of the world I didn’t think I would ever get to see. The conference is attended usually by around 6000 lawyers which is daunting to begin with but is easily navigated after your first one. After a few years attending and speaking to various officers associated with the IBA, I threw my hat into the ring and offered to join the Young Lawyers’ committee to give them a perspective from Chambers and the Bar in general. I have now been part of the committee since 2013. We meet via telecon once a month and have in the region of 20 officers based across 20 different countries. I have made some great friends and contacts and received/referred work on numerous occasions.

We understand you were responsible most recently for organising and budgeting a young lawyers event in Sydney – how did that go?

This could be put down as a perk of the job I guess… however, it did take a lot of time to arrange. Hosting an event for 500 lawyers in a country I had never been to was a bit of a challenge…. As an officer of the Young Lawyers committee you are assigned a different office every 2 years in line with the IBA’s rules and it just so happened that I was made events officer in the year the IBA set sail for Australia! I was also fortunate that we had a record number of sponsors who pay for the event and even more fortunate that another IBA rule is if you don’t spend it you lose it and you can’t carry any budget over to next year…. So, along with a small committee, we set about doing exactly that. We wanted to make sure our sponsors were shown our appreciation so included pressboards at the entrance, digital signage and areas within the venue so they had space to speak to delegates and had a base for their respective teams. Once we had booked the venue, the IBA produced the flyers and materials and we even managed to fly in the DJ’s (thanks to a client, Blackbutter records in London). The Young Lawyers’ party, a permanent fixture of the IBA annual conference, is for all delegates hosted by the YLC. Plans for our party in Rome this October are well under way, but it certainly won’t be planned in a day!

Who continues to inspire you?

I am inspired by the junior clerks of our profession. Every time I see our junior clerks, or other chambers JC’s running papers between sets or pushing their trolleys to and from court, I am reminded of where most of us started out, the hours we put in and the importance of everyone in the team.

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