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Clerks' Roundtable 2016

Who’s Who Legal has brought together Eddie Holland, senior clerk at 3 Raymond Buildings, Stephen Penson, senior practice manager at 3 Verulam Buildings, and David Goddard, senior clerk at 4 Stone Buildings, to get their views on the current state of the UK bar.

They discuss how sets are adapting to meet clients’ increasing expectations, the burgeoning trend towards fewer but larger sets, the changing role of a clerk, and the impact of direct public access following the recent developments regarding the Direct Access Portal. 

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Tell us about your set, its structure, and how it is run.

Eddie Holland: 3 Raymond Buildings is a multidisciplined set of 17 silks and 33 juniors with a national and international reputation in criminal and quasi-criminal matters including fraud and financial regulation, extradition, inquests and inquiries, regulatory enforcement, licensing and professional discipline. Chambers administrative matters are dealt with by an elected management committee which is chaired by the head of chambers. Other sub-groups (eg, pupillage or equality and diversity) report to the management committee. We have a team of six clerks, led by myself, who are responsible for the day-to-day management of members’ diaries and commitments and also a chambers manager who runs a team of four on the administration side.

Stephen Penson: 3 Verulam Buildings is a leading commercial set of chambers, with more than 70 barristers (including more than 20 silks). We specialise in a variety of commercial work including banking, fraud, financial services and international arbitration. Chambers is structured in such a way that allows clients to contact chambers based on the level of seniority required and we have at least three clerks dealing with each level (junior juniors, senior juniors and silks) to ensure that up-to-date availability and details of counsel’s experience can be provided to clients on request. As a set we are continually looking at the structure of chambers and regularly discuss opportunities for improvement. Only recently we recruited a chief executive, to ensure the continued good management of chambers and to relieve our barristers of most of the administrative burden attached to running a large, successful set. As you would expect with a chambers of our size, we then have various committees dealing with everything from general management through to practice development, though we expect these now to reduce in number.

David Goddard: We are a set of 33 barristers, of which seven are in silk. The head of chambers and senior clerk deal with the day to day running/decisions in chambers including staff salaries. We take on two pupils each year with a view to offering them a tenancy if they reach the required standard. That decision is made by all members at our annual chambers meeting. Other barristers are convened for any other important decisions. Our aim is to keep every member busy in the areas of work they enjoy. Chambers does limited direct marketing compared to other sets. However, we overcome this by getting recognition and a good reputation in the marketplace. The principal legal directories have consistently ranked us as one of the top civil sets at the bar in our core areas of expertise – commercial litigation, commercial chancery, company law, civil fraud, banking and finance, financial services and insolvency. Numerous individual members of chambers are also recommended in other specialist areas, such as offshore work, telecommunications, and administrative and public law.

Many of those we spoke to have noted that the commercial bar now consists of fewer but larger sets. Is this a trend you have noticed, and if so what effect is it having on the market? Do you expect this to continue?

Eddie Holland: While I’m not best placed to comment on the commercial bar, this is a trend that the criminal bar has also seen over the last few years with a number of chambers either dissolving or merging with each other and forming larger sets, the most recent example being the formation of Drystone Chambers in July 2015. I can see further mergers occurring, particularly among those criminal sets dealing predominantly with publicly funded work due to a necessity from a business point of view. I don’t feel it’s particularly affecting the market; more the market has created the situation where sets have to act.

Stephen Penson: The commercial bar has historically consisted of larger sets and because of the competitive nature of this type of work, other sets have looked to increase in size. The commercial bar actually covers a wide range of practice areas and as solicitors look to focus their energies on a certain number of sets only, inevitably sets want to be able to respond to this by ensuring they have sufficient members and expertise to deal with all of their requirements. While I can see this continuing to an extent, I expect the trend to slow. The focus for many of the larger sets, including ours, is to grow steadily through its junior members, with only limited and perhaps opportunistic “lateral hiring”, therefore ensuring that the highest standards are maintained.

David Goddard: I am not sure that I agree that the commercial bar consists of fewer but larger sets. Chambers have certainly been getting larger and larger and it is a trend that I see continuing in the future. If anything the commercial work has spread to the chancery bar and we see we are more and more in the commercial court than we are in the chancery division.

As clients become more exact in their requirements from legal counsel, how has your set adapted to meet their expectations?  

Eddie Holland: Internally we adopted a team-clerking approach a number of years ago to encourage closer working relationships, with both members and clients. As a smaller set we provide a personal service from both the clerks’ room and the members, which I think is reflected in what others say about chambers. This is a way of working that has been both successful and in place a long time.

Stephen Penson: At 3VB we regularly liaise with clients to ensure that the service we provide is of the highest standard and that we are meeting their requirements. These requirements often differ from client to client so our focus is always to remain flexible and tailor solutions as necessary. These solutions do not always take the form of legal advice. A large amount of our work is focused on providing solicitors with support from an administrative aspect; for example, billing procedures that integrate with the existing format and those of the clients. One of the reasons we recently decided to recruit a chambers chief executive was because we wanted to prioritise the service aspect of our business and have someone who can provide a different perspective. As a set we regularly undertake secondment placements with clients. This provides us with a fantastic insight into some of the issues our clients face and allows us to build a relationship with them responding to those issues.

David Goddard: Mainly, be flexible with fee arrangements and give a first-class service. Always try and go the extra mile. Nothing is too much and everything is doable. Continue to recruit good people from the bottom up. I am fortunate in having a clerking team who have been in chambers for many years and know the individual barristers’ practices, which enables them to make the right recommendations to clients for new work, and manage the barristers’ diaries so they are more effective with their time and available as required by clients. We have made a conscious policy to work closer with our existing clients and cultivate new clients with client lunches and social events.

The UK Bar is, as ever, very competitive. How is your set dealing with this?

Eddie Holland: Chambers adopts careful and considered recruitment of both barristers and staff. By maintaining a high standard of practitioners, sensible strategic planning has allowed as to diversify within our core practice areas with great success.

Stephen Penson: Based on my experience of the commercial bar, it is extremely competitive and will continue to be. Commercial clients are sophisticated and already have a very good understanding of the commercial bar and the counsel and/or set they wish to instruct. It is our role to ensure that we remain at the forefront of our selected practice areas, continually demonstrating that we have the skill and experience to find a solution for the client. Additionally, we are looking to provide solicitors with additional support above and beyond simply providing barristers. This can be as simple as supporting solicitors when they are pitching for new work or working with solicitors and clients to provide innovative pricing structures.

David Goddard: By being flexible, as mentioned in the previous answer, and taking on good-quality people at the bottom.

Have you seen your role as a clerk develop and change at all over the last 12 months? Do you expect any further changes in the coming year?

Eddie Holland: I think clerking usually sees subtle changes year-on-year as the market changes and regulation of the market develops but I couldn’t point to one significant thing over the last year. Looking ahead we still await news from the BSB about the introduction of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) which, for my set, would have major implications for the clerks as well as the members, but at the moment there appears to be no timetable in place. We also await news of solicitors’ legal challenges against the implementation of the “two-tier” duty provider contracts which currently have been put off until April 2016. The contracts initially awarded would have a huge effect on the many firms undertaking legally aided work and of course that would result in a knock on effect for the criminal bar.

Stephen Penson: The role of a clerk continually develops and that is one of the attractions of the position. My role, personally, has changed significantly in the last 12 months and I expect that to continue in the coming year. The role of a clerk requires many different skills, ranging from adviser and general agony aunt through to business development. The business development aspect of the role is what interests me the most and puts me in direct contact with interesting people who are looking for a solution to a particular problem. It helps that I work for an excellent group of barristers able to provide those solutions and I also work with a tremendously supportive and experienced clerks’ room. I see the changes in the coming year relating to the management of chambers – both the implementation of our strategies, as well as continuing to prioritise client relationships.

David Goddard: We have started to do a bit more than we have previously on getting to know our clients, but overall I intend to carry on as I have done over the last 10 years or so. The principal role of the clerk has not changed. The clerk’s main function is to manage the barrister’s diary and their practices, and to agree and collect their fees. However, as the size of chambers has increased, the cost of running chambers has increased, and the development of IT and, above all else, meeting all the regulatory and diversity requirements have made the job much more sophisticated. 

How do you see the development of the Direct Access Portal affecting the bar?

Eddie Holland: I think it’s difficult to comment on any effect the Direct Access Portal may have as it is very early days yet. A well-presented profile on this website is another tool barristers can use to promote themselves, but I think while many barristers can do a good job on a direct access basis, chambers on the whole are not really yet geared up to, or want to, litigate cases fully.

Stephen Penson: I think there are two aspects to this question. First, the general concept of Public Access and the importance for the bar as a whole to become more accessible in these changing times. There is an element of modernisation required to respond to this which I believe is a good thing. Public Access is something that some clients will want, across all areas of legal practice, including in the commercial world. It will provide opportunities for new work but we must be mindful of the potential conflict with instructing solicitors when pursuing this type of work. At 3VB we have recognised the opportunity and have members that have undertaken the necessary public access training. Our aim when considering this was to ensure that we could supply a service to international clients and lawyers primarily. When appropriate, we have been able to engage the services of instructing solicitors who have specific law firm experience that will assist the clients. This is an unusual position for the bar but one that I see developing in the coming years.

The second aspects related to the Direct Access Portal specifically. I do not see the DAP itself being something that many commercial clients would use, but I can see its potential in areas such as administrative and public law and some crime.

David Goddard: I think this is a good thing. I also believe the Bar Council should do more in making public access more known, perhaps with television advertising or in any legal television programmes.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your set and how do you hope to tackle these over the coming year?

Eddie Holland: We are all aware in the clerks’ room that chambers over a period of time has positioned itself well in the market and the challenge for us is to maintain our reputation for expertise and service delivery at the high levels we have reached.

Stephen Penson: The commercial bar needs to continue its high level of excellence and avoid any complacency. International clients have more options available for remedy now, such as the emergence of the Singapore International Commercial Court and court centres in Dubai and Qatar. The London Commercial Court is responding to that competition and at 3VB we want to be involved in that development, most recently in the development of the financial list initiative. Our set’s main areas of practice are at the forefront of development, particularly banking and financial services that are facing such stringent regulation in the current economic climate. One of our challenges is managing that ever-changing climate and ensuring that we keep clients aware of the changes and how they may affect them.

David Goddard: The main challenge is keeping every barrister employed with work.

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