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Clerks' Discussion

In this discussion Sally Wollaston, business development manager at XXIV Old Buildings, and Nick Hill, senior clerk at Three New Square, talk about the structure of their sets, modernisation and increased competition at the Bar, the future for chambers in the changing legal market and how they maintain their set’s leading positions in the market.

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

Nick Hill: Three New Square IP is a specialist intellectual property chambers, with 5 silks (soon to be 6 with the elevation of Tom Mitcheson) and 13 juniors, all of whom have expertise in the full range of IP and specialist technical matters.

Chambers administrative matters are dealt with by an elected management committee which is chaired by the Head of Chambers. Other sub-groups (e.g. Pupillage or Equality & Diversity) report to the Management Committee.

We have a team of 5 clerks who are responsible for the day to day practice management of members’ diaries and commitments and a full time administrator who works alongside the clerks.

Sally Wollaston: XXIV Old Buildings is a leading commercial chancery set with 42 members, of whom 11 are silks.  We have just appointed a new Chambers Director, Sue Medder, who joins us from Withers where she was a partner in Contentious Trust and Probate.  Sue is assisted by 2 senior practice managers, Daniel Wilson and Paul Matthews, who each run a team of 3.  Chambers also has Finance and Administration Director, Kathryn Paterson, and a business development team of 2 headed by Business Development Manager, Sally Wollaston.

 

WWL: During the course of Who’s Who Legal’s research over the past few years, several solicitors and clients we have spoken to have commented on modernisation in the way sets are run, such as being more customer service- based, and in line with solicitors’ firms. Do you believe this has happened? What changes have taken place at your chambers in recent years?

Nick Hill: Whilst maintaining its position as a referral profession there is no doubt that most modern chambers have understood that they are also a service industry. Our chambers understands that and, across the board, we respond and deal with our clients in a professional and user friendly way, ranging from the members in their dealings with professional and lay clients to the clerks responding to telephone and other messages.

Sally Wollaston: We have always aimed to give clients a first class and commercial service.  In recent years, we have seen more CFAs, fixed fees and interest (but not yet involvement) in third party funding.  We have always sought to be transparent concerning fees and to keep clients abreast of fee levels.  Ensuring we keep our information in line with recent developments (eg precedent H on costs) is key.

 

WWL: The UK Bar is, according to our research, becoming increasingly competitive. How is your set adjusting to this?

Nick Hill: There has always been competition, in particular at the IP bar where a small number of sets compete. Crucial is the recruitment of the best barristers, which we have done both from pupillage and lateral hire.  As above, good service from the clerks is also important; ease of dealing, being responsive and working with clients to achieve their needs.

Maintaining a high level profile is key to remaining competitive and we seek to do this through eg putting on our own conferences to showcase our practice areas; working hard with the legal directories; attending relevant functions hosted by third party organisations etc.

Sally Wollaston: We also take pro-active steps to stay in the vanguard of the sectors in which we operate.  For example, we are heavily involved in the development of the arbitration of trust disputes.  We have also recently appointed as our Chambers Director not a career clerk but a partner from a major London law firm.

 

WWL: Many of those we have spoken to have suggested that the commercial bar will consist of fewer but larger sets. Is this something that you have started to see?

Nick Hill: The largest commercial sets will often now have in the region of 80 members of chambers. Having previously been the senior clerk in a large commercial set, I would expect that these sets will increase in size, largely due to organic growth, but I would be surprised to see rapid growth in their membership. More likely may be a focus or work being directed towards fewer chambers.

My experience at Three New Square, as a smaller specialist chambers, is that we have the benefit of operating the chambers model as it was originally intended. Internal workings and communication are improved and clerks have the full picture of work that is being undertaken together with a better understanding of the skill sets of the various members of chambers.

Sally Wollaston: We believe that there is still a place for niche specialism (eg tax).  However, economies of scale and the demands of running a multi-million pound business are a significant factor towards the development of fewer but larger sets. 

 

WWL: Has the level of work your set is seeing from law firms changed over the past five years or so? If so, why?

Nick Hill: Work has been, and is, predominantly received from law firms and although we are able to accept instructions from patent and trade mark attorneys and in house lawyers, I do not envisaging this changing.

Sally Wollaston: There is less standard court and advisory work for the younger juniors.  This is in part because of a retraction in litigation but also because solicitors are increasingly seeking to keep such work in-house.  However, other opportunities have opened up eg internationally.

 

WWL: There is concern that the increased use of alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation and arbitration, is resulting in less work for the bar.  Is this something you have noticed? What are the emerging areas that your set is looking towards in order to off set this?

Nick Hill: There have been some ‘global settlements’, such as the recent agreement between Nokia and HTC, which have resulted in trials being removed from the diary. However, these are relatively rare. In our chambers, Counsel have appeared at mediations and as mediators, and in arbitration and as arbitrators and so we view these as opportunities rather than threats.

Chambers’ recent practice development has included increasing its offering in non-patent areas and a focus on experience and expertise in other technical areas, including IT and arbitration.

Sally Wollaston: We have noticed an increase in both mediation and arbitration, but this is largely because our members are being involved in it rather than it taking instructions away.  We are therefore seeking to develop our expertise and market knowledge of our expertise in these areas. 

 

WWL: How does your set market itself? Overall, do you believe chambers and barristers are doing enough to market themselves? How could this be improved?

Nick Hill: As a relatively small set in a niche area our best marketing comes from the results that members achieve and the positive comments received on their skills and abilities.

On a personal level I have worked to introduce myself to chambers’ clients, notifying them of updates in availability and an ongoing process of arranging contact between members and clients.

Sally Wollaston: We undertake a variety of initiatives.  Whilst improvement is always possible, the Bar simply does not have the resources enjoyed by solicitors’ firms.  The cost of business development generally is another reason for expansion of chambers into larger sets.

 

WWL: What has been the impact of solicitor-advocates and barristers moving to solicitors’ firms on the UK Bar?

Nick Hill: My most recent experience and knowledge has been for moves to take place in the opposite direction – from law firms to the Bar. Our chambers has two successful juniors who were formerly solicitors. My view is that this is a greater trend.

Sally Wollaston: There has not been a particularly noticeable effect on our business.  We have also seen increasing numbers of solicitors moving to the Bar.

 

WWL: Has there been a change to the role of the clerk? Have you seen an increase in the number of professionals from other disciplines taking on this role?

Nick Hill: There has undoubtedly been a change in role. A modern clerk will need to have a variety of skills, from the traditional strong organisational and people skills to the more modern requirements of marketing and promotional skills as well as the most recent demands on understanding contractual terms of service and the regulatory requirements with the introduction of the BSB handbook.

Regulation aspects in particular seem to be on the increase and I am aware of some chambers recruiting professionals (often lawyers) to assist in the requirements brought about as a result.

Sally Wollaston: Clerking remains pretty much the same but the role of the Senior Clerk/Practice Director/CEO or whatever a particular chambers calls it, is changing considerably.  Although knowledge of clerking remains a useful attribute, business skills are increasingly important.  Chambers are also having to look carefully at how they deal with complying with increasing regulation.

 

WWL: Pupillages are over-subscribed. What do you look for in a pupil and how can someone make themselves stand out?

Nick Hill: We look for excellence, both academic and in other areas of life, combined with the self-motivation required to succeed as a self-employed professional.  Evidence of written and oral advocacy skills are also, of course, important.  As a result of the technical nature of much of chambers’ work, many members of chambers have a science qualification to degree level or beyond.

Sally Wollaston: We look for candidates with strong academic qualifications (a first or 2:1 class degree though not necessarily in law, although we consider lower class degrees if you suffered mitigating circumstances), intellectual ability, sound common sense and judgment, enthusiasm for the type of work in which we specialise.  We aim to identify potential to become great advocates and successful tenants in our Chambers.  We take account of high grades in post-graduate law qualifications if they are relevant to our area of practice.

 We take particular pride in our transparent, fair, rigorous and friendly application process which we believe our applicants deserve and appreciate.  We operate an equal opportunities policy and recruit without regard to race, colour, ethnic or national origin, nationality, citizenship, sex, gender re-assignment, sexual orientation, marital or civil partnership status, disability, age, religion or belief or pregnancy and maternity. 

 

WWL: Chambers seem to be retaining fewer pupils for tenancy. What impact do you think this will have on the future of the UK Bar?

Nick Hill: Even though we are small and historically have grown only organically, we have consistently taken pupils and, if anything, as we have grown our offer-rate has increased rather than decreased.  This appears to be matched across the IP bar, so the general trend you refer to is not reflected in this increasingly important commercial area.  Further, experience shows that if a candidate is good enough to be taken on for pupillage, they can find employment at the end of the process even if they are not awarded tenancy. 

Sally Wollaston: We have not adopted such a policy.  Our policy remains to keep on all our pupils if we think they are of sufficient standard.  We also take on the number of pupils we think we could sustain if we took them all on.

 

WWL: How can sets maintain their leading positions at the UK Bar for the foreseeable future? What strategies does your set have in place to meet the changing nature of the global legal market?

Nick Hill: The best advocates and advisers are consistently in demand. Even where law firms have in-house barristers, they often accept that the Bar’s greatest selling point – a free, flexible and cost-effective market for the client to select whichever barrister at whichever set they feel is best for their case.  This remains as relevant now as ever and I believe will secure the Bar’s future. As long as sets such as ours are able to attract the highest quality applicants, as we currently do, we expect to maintain our leading position.

The selling points for those UK users of the bar also exist for international users. In the last year we have seen instructions from, and for clients based in, a number of International jurisdictions. This international element is important and reflected by the interest of the Bar to promote itself in other jurisdictions. For example, Three New Square is sponsoring and attending and speaking at the forthcoming WIPO-SIAC IP symposium in Singapore in March which will be attended by two senior members of chambers and me, and which we will be using as an opportunity to meet with contacts and update them of our expertise in the field.

Sally Wollaston: The Bar needs to be and to be seen to be forward thinking and proactive

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