Thursday, 22 September 2011

Barristers - the case for change

I've heard from a number of barristers lately and a surprising number seem to be of the opinion that the structural changes to the industry will have no or little impact on their life and business. I'm not sure I agree.

As with all change, there are opportunities and threats. The threats to the bar come in a number of forms. The first is that the changes to the industry are built around efficiency (or at least they are supposed to be). Efficiency of process and efficiency of price. To that end, a set of chambers and its clerks will need to be able to demonstrate both. This will require a good understanding of their own processes, those of referring solicitors and those of their clients, whether coming through direct access or not. Efficient connections between processes will be vital.

This understanding of their own systems will then need to lead to an improved understanding of the prices negotiated and the client-value of the services provided. The next threat will come from ABSs. I'm still unsure what these will look like and exactly how they will work, but there is a threat there to the traditional referral model. As such, chambers need to be keeping a close eye on the Market. The latest great wheeze for chambers is the move to a "ProcureCo" model where chambers establishes a limited company to procure business and to enter into contracts with large entities. I spoke with two sets last week on this subject and sadly neither was clear about why they wanted to move in that direction. The most usually reason is so that chambers can bid for large panel work. What must be understood, however, is that pitching for this work requires some considerable investment - certainly in time and usually in reporting and communication systems. Once won, servicing these large clients is a considerable task requiring yet more time, trouble and technology. I do think more chambers should use this model - but only after some careful consideration of why they are doing it, the development of a plan, and wthe recognition that considerable investment will be required.

All of these issues are, of course, also opportunities. Chambers are, in general, already leaner than law firms in terms of their support costs and so are well placed to "steal" business. Barristers have spent generations working on a fee+refreshers basis - something that clients want and something that many are pushing law firms to adopt. When most clients talk about fixed fee work, they understand that contingent pricing is required - i.e. that an agreed fixed price is only agreed if the discussed perameters hold good. If more work is required (for good reason and explained in advance to the client) then most clients accept that an addition payment is required. This is the fee+refreshers model - or close enough that barristers and clerks should recognise it.

The real advantage for barristers comes from "lean" working. With fewer support staff and no atrium to support, barristers can be cheaper, or certainly more cost effective, than law firms. I was told a story recently about a commercial client who needed advice about a complex tax matter. They approached a large law firm who proposed an hourly rate in excess of £300 and suggested that a three person team would spend a week or so on the matter before reporting. A set of chambers was also approached. The clerk suggested that one of his tax Silks could examine the matter over the course of a weekend and offer an opinion on the following Monday, at a fixed fixed cost of £14,000. Cheaper and faster - now there is an advantage...

Changes are coming and I'd be much happier to be a barrister than a solicitor (so long as I wasn't trying to establish myself as a junior at the criminal bar - but that's a different story altogether).

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