Who’s Who Legal has brought together David Grief, Senior Clerk at Essex Court Chambers and Oliver Parkhouse, Director of Clerking at 12 King’s Bench Walk to discuss the current state of the UK Bar. They explore the development of the role of the clerk in Chambers, as well as key issues such as the effects of the Direct Access Portal and the main challenges facing sets over the coming year.
David Grief: Essex Court Chambers is a set of barristers’ chambers, specialising in commercial and financial litigation, arbitration, public law and public international law which is distinguished from its commercial competitors for having the most significant international reach. Essex Court in its present incarnation was established in 1961 and so it is perhaps not surprising that the set operates on a very traditional model and has done so, with some considerable success, for almost sixty years. There is practising barrister as Head of Chambers, who is ultimately accountable for major strategic decisions along with members and the two Senior Clerks involved in various committees. An extensive Clerking and Administrative team are responsible for the day to day management of chambers.
Oliver Parkhouse: 12KBW is a personal injury and industrial disease chambers, with other areas of specialisms including clinical negligence, employment, insurance fraud and travel & international law.
Paul Russell QC is our Head of Chambers and Paul and I work closely in the running of chambers. Paul is supported by Richard Viney, Deputy Head of Chambers and Treasurer. Paul, Richard and I sit on the management committee with nine other members of chambers. The management committee meets monthly to address chambers business. Nimisha Patel is head of HR, administration and compliance and works with me in managing the growth and development of our staff, along with ensuring that chambers comply with its outside regulatory requirements and internal policies.
Our experienced clerking team are responsible for the day-to-day practice management of our members, with a clerking team structure in place which facilitates continuity and focus on individual’s practices and practice areas.
David Grief: I have been a Senior Clerk for 41 years, the last 37 with Essex Court. In the last four decades, the role has of course changed in that all successful businesses have responded to huge technological progress and the significant impact on how we now approach business development and client care. For me I see the most exciting development to be the ability to operate effectively and credibly as an international player; perhaps the most challenging is the recognition that clients (and members) expect a Senior Clerk to be accessible 24/7 and with today’s technology there is no reason not to be. However the fundamental role, that of the Clerks being the business end of Chambers, remains unchanged only now we are expected to be that much faster to respond to communications, more knowledgeable to anticipate opportunities and more innovative to deal with market challenges such as pricing.
Oliver Parkhouse: The fundamental aspects of the role of a clerk are very much the same as when I started, with any successful clerk being efficient, reliable, client-focused and possessing the ability to communicate and build relationships with people from all walks of life.
In recent years there has been a greater requirement for clerks to be more commercially astute and business-minded, with many clerks looking to seek further education to enable them to successfully lead their chambers.
There is more emphasis on structured practice management which enables clerks to assist in guiding practices in accordance with an individual’s career ambitions. There is a greater responsibility on clerks to ensure fair allocation of work and to implement equality and diversity policies.
David Grief: I think there is some confusion in the marketplace about the difference between public and professional direct access. The Direct Access Portal was designed to make it easier for the public to access the services of barristers. As Essex Court Chambers is a commercial set, this may be a question of more relevance to those sets with a focus on private law or those acting for individuals in Public Law cases. Professional direct access is of most relevance to sectors with a high volume of regulation and with sizeable and specialist in-house legal teams. Although Direct Access does not account for a significant volume of Essex Court’s work, my impression is that the initial concerns solicitor clients may have had, that this development was a threat, has long subsided. There is not only sufficient volume of work in these areas for both sides of the profession but also solicitors are beginning to appreciate that with Direct Access, barristers are now in a position to recommend or instruct them for a change!
Oliver Parkhouse: The impact of the Direct Access Portal has been very much dependant on the area of law. For example, within employment law, I have seen some barristers embrace the change and approach this work with a commercial outlook, resulting in new avenues of both challenging and well-remunerated work.
Practitioners working directly with clients in this way have had to quickly acclimatise to being the direct point of contact with the client. They have had to manage client expectations, at times dealing with more regular enquiries from the client than normally expected of an instructing solicitor.
Whilst we have seen an increase in work via the Direct Access Portal, the majority of our instructions are still received via instructing solicitors
David Grief: Any challenge is more importantly an opportunity! In all seriousness it is how you as a Clerk and Chambers as a business acknowledges a development as a “challenge” and how you respond which makes you ahead or behind the curve in terms of client and market perceptions. To be ahead of your competitors, you need to be able to anticipate rather than hesitate, wait and then react. For that reason I’m in favour of involvement in “Think Tanks” and other forward-looking fora such as roundtable discussions! Although I see the next 12 months as looking bright, I believe there will be increased fee pressure from clients and in particular a greater demand, and rightly so, for greater transparency and accountability for our charges. Also there will be a demand for more innovative pricing structures to reflect the fee pressures imposed by the end client. Balancing this will be continued pressure on chambers’ running costs and savings that can be made, say on facilities, now that more members spend more time from home offices.
Oliver Parkhouse: The main challenge for chambers in the coming years will be the continued driving down of costs within some of our core areas of practice – including fixed-fee proposals. Our approach to this is to ensure we are working closely with our core clients and ensuring we are clear about their expectations and requirements. Review meetings with clients are a fundamental aspect of our relationships which enables us to obtain feedback on our performance and to also discuss and share views on anticipated challenges in the short or longer term.
We will continue to look for opportunities to develop our business, and we were proud of successfully forming our international and travel team in 2016. This was an example of our ability to diversify. In 2017, the newly formed team was ranked in the leading legal directories which was an outstanding achievement in such a short period of time.