Another Toe in the Water: Bar Contracting Conference

In “One Toe in the Water” I discussed in context the Bar Standards Board’s decision in principle to regulate entities in it its press release of 28 April 2011.  I considered how the Bar had grown exponentially (I was going to say “like Topsy” until I remembered the origin of that phrase in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) while the supply of work had shrunk and was likely to shrink still further as a result of the proposals that have now found their way into the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I concluded my article with the observation that the Bar needs to be more entrepreneurial.

That was a refrain that I heard more than once at the Bar Contracting Conference in the Cumberland Hotel yesterday. I heard it particularly clearly from Christine Kings, Commercial Director of Outer Temple who spoke twice yesterday: once on new business opportunities in the plenary session in the morning and again in the afternoon in the workshop on international work. Jonsp27 tweeted that her talk was “by far  the best so far” with “practical ideas” and I have to agree.   Its positivity cheered me enormously.

I also heard the same message from Michael Todd QC who gave the other outstanding speech. Todd was called the same day as me and he began his speech with an observation of how chancery practice has changed since we first entered the profession. In those days law firms were very much smaller and less specialized. Clients were prepared to wait months for counsel’s opinion. If they wanted a conference they had to attend us at our chambers. All that has now changed.  The Bar is no longer the senior branch.   Counsel have to work as a team with accountants and other professionals as well as solicitors.  Barristers have to be prepared to deliver opinions almost instantly in by telephone or whatever other form the client requires.

The importance of speed and flexibility was reinforced by Dr. Mirza Ahmed, Corporate Director of Governance of Birmingham City Council. He stressed that barristers should market themselves as business advisers and not just advocates.  He outlined his vision for the future where procurement companies would market the services of barristers from different chambers with different specialisms in different geographical areas.

All of this will require a change in our rules and Vanessa Davies of the Bar Standards Board outlined some of the changes in the pipeline. As I mentioned in One Toe in the Water, the Board has agreed to allow regulated entities to conduct litigation but it will not allow them to hold clients’ money. However, it is contemplating a custodian scheme whereby the Bar Council would hold funds.   To my surprise – and unless I have misunderstood him – Peter Lodder QC offered on behalf of the Bar Council to participate in the scheme. The idea of my professional association’s operating a client account is intriguing and as Sir Humphrey would have said in “Yes Minister” rather a bold one.  I think banks, accountants or other trustees would be better placed to hold and invest clients’ moneys in escrow.

Returning to Ms. Kings, she was fizzing with ideas. Two that occurred to her during the meeting were a specialist mediation service for civil partnerships and a specialist legal risk assessment service.  She also had another one which she kept to herself because she thought it was particularly good. In the international workshop she spoke about the company that certain practitioners in Outer Temple had set up to attract international work.   With people like her about, maybe the Bar really does have a future after all.

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About Jane Lambert

I am a barrister specializing in intellectual property, technology, media and entertainment and competition law. I specialize in helping SME (small and medium enterprises) protect and exploit their investment in brands, design, technology and the arts. SME require intellectual property (legal protection for their intellectual assets) at least as much as big business but their limited means restrict the way they can use it. Looking after such clients wisely requires skills and knowledge which have taken me years to learn.
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