Getting your Chambers fit for the future
‘Building Back Better’ has become the world’s slogan - from budget decisions to carbon emissions. The concept is, of course, far from new. It has been used in disaster recovery parlance for decades and derives from evidence that the collective shock of a major catastrophe somehow seeds a desire in those affected not just to return to normal but to pursue a better normal.
Anecdotally at least, the UK Bar has weathered the shock of the pandemic and its disruption to the justice system well. But our conversations with barristers and their professional support teams across the country, suggest that there are growing tensions within some chambers (bar firms) as adjustments are made for increased borrowings, technology challenges, fee pressures, unpaid debts, long working hours and shrinking markets.
Reflecting on the similarities and differences between law firms and bar firms, and how both are reviving themselves following prolonged periods of lockdown, here are some questions you may like to ask yourselves as you strive to build your chambers back better post pandemic.
Question 1 - Is your business strategy fit for the future?
Business gurus would have us believe that culture eats strategy for breakfast - and they are almost certainly right. But a culture without a clear business strategy will be directionless. A good business strategy should include a statement of your overall market proposition and your target audience, your chosen route or routes to market, the services you intend to offer and how they will be delivered. It should also identify the organisation’s vision for recruiting and retaining the right people, its commitment to equality and diversity and to the environment, and how this will be reflected in the organisation’s financial plans. As we emerge from the pandemic, a review of your current business strategy to ensure it remains relevant to the changing marketplace will help you build back better from a solid foundation.
Question 2 - Is your chambers operating model fit for the future?
The traditional chambers operating model is far from broken - indeed, law firms such as gunnercooke and Keystone Law have successfully adopted similar models, using a central services company to engage self-employed consultant solicitors based on a pre-agreed fee split. The Bar Standards Board’s regulatory reforms enabling barristers to form BSB entities have opened up new models for barristers to collaborate via profit-sharing vehicles. These new operating models can take the form of Authorised Bodies (fully owned and managed by authorised individuals) or Licensed Bodies (owned and managed jointly by authorised individuals and non-lawyers). In our July 2020 article in The Barrister entitled BSB entities offer positive future for the Bar, we outlined some key issues to consider when forming a BSB entity. Early adopters of these new operating models report several benefits, including easier access to external funding and greater flexibility for service innovation. In pursuit of a better normal, investigating and considering these new operating models could be a valuable exercise, even if only to reassure you that your existing operating model is the right one for you.
Question 3 - Are your members’ contractual engagement terms fit for the future?
As working patterns change and barristers look for greater flexibility and reduced operating costs, chambers should be reviewing their contractual terms with their members to make sure their interests remain fully aligned. Identifying and implementing positive improvements in contractual terms should pay dividends in terms of improved member retention and recruitment levels.
Question 4 - Is the reward structure for your employed staff fit for the future?
Like other essential services, those providing legal services (and their support staff) responded heroically to the pandemic, despite all the logistical challenges. Many legal businesses are now investing heavily in the personal development of support teams to ensure they are well-trained, well-nurtured and well-rewarded - not just to thank them for their past efforts but also to increase the chances of them being around when the next challenges come.
Question 5 - Is your cyber and risk management planning fit for the future?
Remote working has heightened the risk of allowing gremlins into the systems of every legal business. Chambers management teams must remain on red alert and ensure that their teams are properly trained, contracts for outsourced IT support are carefully negotiated, and cyber liability insurance cover is placed via a specialist broker.
Question 6 - Are your premises fit for the future?
There cannot be a professional business in the land that hasn’t debated this labyrinthine issue. Lockdown has taught everyone to expect the unexpected and build as much flexibility into office facilities as possible, reconfiguring them so they become environments that people actually look forward to working in and visiting. A strategic review of your premises by a specialist chartered surveyor in conjunction with an expert space planner will add huge value to your decision-making.
Question 7 - Are your staff welfare arrangements fit for the future?
The pandemic has reminded everyone of the direct and inextricable correlation between personal wellbeing and business performance.
Question 8 - Is your chambers’ leadership fit for the future?
Humility and humanity go a long way in a business leader, as does the occasional hint of vulnerability. But the last two years have shown that the defining quality in a successful business leader is the ability to set out a credible direction of travel, to inspire confidence when the going gets tough, and to create an environment where everyone can give of their best.
Never since the financial meltdown of the late noughties have these questions been more important than they are right now. Answering them honestly and then implementing the changes that the answers illustrate are needed will determine whether your chambers merely survives or thrives.
Nigel Wallis, Director, O’Connors Legal Services Limited