Let’s be clear here. I genuinely do not know what they do teach at Bar school. Some law stuff and a bit of advocacy I guess. I’ve never really known much more than this and I’m not sure if it’s relevant to my day-to-day business of managing and promoting a set of chambers. If it is, well, too late …
I know that becoming a barrister involves a pretty long slog academically followed by the immensely tough challenge of finding a pupillage and ultimately a tenancy. There can be no doubting the rigour of this process. Having come this far, a barrister can be forgiven for assuming that they have done all the hard work and that success in practice is a foregone conclusion. It is indeed an impressive achievement, however it arguably leaves them ill-prepared for many of the fundamental challenges ahead such as the practical, real world application of legal expertise, developing relationships and building a successful, progressive and sustainable practice.
The weakness of pupillage
These vital skills need to be developed from beyond the formal education process, which starts with the transition phase from qualification into practice, pupillage. This involves spending a year under the supervision of a small number of different barristers who meet the “pupil supervisor” requirements. These requirements are hardly stringent and the supervisors themselves are there by virtue of an identical process, with equally little guidance in the non-academic aspects of legal practice. They may or may not have since picked up the right commercial and practical skills to be considered a good example, yet this does not seem to be a factor in their eligibility for this role. This makes it something of a lottery whether or not a pupil is placed with someone able to set the right example for someone newly facing a changing legal marketplace. The problem here is that the pupillage process is regarded as one in which the pupil is encouraged to follow their supervisor, rather than view them in any way critically. In this respect, it is wrong to assume that the supervisor’s strong reputation or financial success means they are someone suitable to set an example: many outstandingly academic barristers have in the past achieved such successes in spite of practical shortcomings. I doubt that the modern marketplace will prove to be so forgiving.
I ought to add here that I am not for a moment advocating that a pupil be vocally critical of their supervisor – that would be a surefire form of career suicide - merely that they should look to learn from their weaknesses as well as their strengths. You can be sure that they will have weaknesses.
Barristers have been blindly following each other through this system for generations, so it is no wonder why the Bar is perceived as a group where change comes very slowly. But evidently this tried and tested formula is a successful one, despite my misgivings, as here we are in a legal marketplace where the Bar holds an enviably strong position.
What I do know is that if I were starting in practice now, I would want to see leadership, guidance and critical appraisal from a variety of angles in the early stages of practice, rather than simply to follow a self-perpetuating system led by those who possessed what may have been a formula for success at the Bar ten or fifteen years ago. This is not to say those individuals would not be equally successful if entering the Bar now, but the question is how do we know ? This is not, I suggest, something that should be left to chance.
So what is the right way to go about building the foundations of a practice ? Most of the genuine success stories I have seen at the Bar have not been down to a clever marketing and business development strategy. Nor from wining and dining solicitors or social-climbing among the legal fraternity. Not from being the cleverest lawyer out there. And not even from buttering up the clerks (although I would not discourage this admirable practice …)
No, most of the examples I can think of of genuine, sustained success at the Bar have one thing in common: a fundamental ethos of pure, uncompromised focus on, enjoyment of and passion for solving legal problems – whoever the client, whichever firm instructing, whichever court or tribunal, whatever the state of the instructions and whatever the fee or funding basis. Such an approach soon makes excellence become an enjoyable habit. This in turn generates an appetite for work that enables volume and thus variety of opportunity for increasing experience as well as exposure in the marketplace: optimal visibility to professional & lay clients, both instructing and opposing, to judges, other barristers, witnesses and other observers in court. They all have a voice and with this approach applied consistently the potential for reputation growth increases exponentially, maximising referrals, building experience while in the meantime excellence becomes the norm for your way of practice.
In contrast, seeking to selectively impress, to manufacture a practice, to chase the big-ticket work or the glamour law firms creates a distraction from the real business of committing to excellence. The practice that you seek will find you naturally in time if you make consistent excellence in service the priority over the temptation for seemingly shorter routes to success. Of course it remains essential to devote time and effort to properly focused marketing and sales activities, but it is important to remember that this process will only ever bring opportunity (in the singular – you usually get only one chance to impress, before clients look elsewhere in this crowded market). This in itself will not build a practice for you. Only referrals will do this and these come from using opportunities to provide exceptional service experience for your clients.
Client focus is a phrase that is often quoted as the key for success in legal practice. Genuine focus on your client’s needs. But we all care about our clients, don’t we ? Well, what does client care really mean in practical terms ? Here are a couple of random illustrations :
- A business client needing some advice in order to make a strategic decision at a board meeting tomorrow needs the best advice you can give, for that purpose, before that meeting. Your perfectly researched detailed opinion on how to win at trial, delivered the day after tomorrow, on expensive paper with pretty spiral-binding, may be very clever but its value to your client at this point is likely to be limited to wrapping fish and chips. (And that’s only if they can remove the binding, which can be quite tricky).
- When a client asks for an invoice, this is not an insignificant, irritating bit of admin that is subordinate to the real business of legal excellence. In fact, they need to know quickly how much money needs to come out of their account, because cash flow is rather important to the running of business or personal finances. Both solicitor and lay client may well have systems in place for processing payments with people being paid to run them who may be wasting time waiting for this information. It is important to them. More so than it may obviously appear to you.
Diverse and simplistic examples perhaps, but deliberately so. The key message is clear. Taking the trouble to understand and act on what genuinely matters to your client is the essence of what client care is and this comes in so many more forms outside what you might regard as your primary focus. Possessing a mindset where you can visualise what your client needs – as opposed to what you want to provide to them - is a key skill. When applied, it gets you noticed and can provide a genuine competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Practice development is another one of those phrases that sounds like a good thing to do, but nobody quite knows what it looks like. Of course, success in practice development depends very much on each individual’s goals and aspirations, but I think common goals for most barristers might be progression, challenge, variety and financial security.
Progression is a difficult one to put your finger on. Milestones can be identified specific to each practice area and can usually be defined by levels of complexity, value or perhaps tribunal, with small stepping-stones between one stage and the next, with a leap of faith being required at some point on the part of a client prepared to send you into personally uncharted territory.
Let me make clear that fee income is a very flakey way of measuring success. I wish I had a pound (no, let’s make it £1.50 and increase it to £1.75 next week for no justifiable reason…) for every time a barrister suggested “progressing” their practice by increasing their charging rate. Increase the rate to increase income, an obvious route to success – provided you are operating in a completely ignorant marketplace. Perhaps this was once the case but right now the legal marketplace is anything but ignorant and indeed is rapidly increasing in sophistication. This sort of short-term approach to fees can be extremely damaging, particularly in the earlier years of practice and any modicum of commercial reasoning dictates that it should be resisted. The fact is that the market will dictate the sort of fees you can charge and if you can progress to the right areas of the market, the work will attract higher fees. But you have to do the hard work to get there first.
The simple answer to what really indicates the successful development of a practice is referrals. It starts with repeat business from a particular client, developing over time into more widespread “word of mouth” referrals. There can be no more clear and reliable indicator that you are doing something right than if someone chooses to put their trust in you again, and more so if they put their reputation on the line to recommend you to someone else. This is what every new barrister should have foremost in their mind in their early years as the most important yardstick for progression and as they key ingredient for a solid platform for long term success. I really cannot stress this enough.
It’s really quite simple, isn’t it ?
In putting together this post, I have simply and somewhat randomly set out what have seemed to me over the years generally to be the most common issues of weakness displayed by barristers in practice. To me, they really do seem obvious and straightforward, to the extent that reflecting on this post I am wondering why I even need to spell them out. I mean surely during the course of one of the most arduous and demanding journeys to becoming a member of such a highly respected profession, someone must teach them this stuff. Mustn’t they …?