A corporate approach to working, with joint strategies and common vision, can enable elements of the Bar to continue to operate as an independent referral profession, with the Bar Council’s proposed new Bar Business Standard a good start, it has been claimed.
The Bar Council has been consulting on the standard, which will replace the current BarMark, and John Binks of the Bar Consultancy Network argued that operation as a business “is a solution and not a change to be avoided” for barristers.
He said: “Within many, if not the majority of [solicitors’] firms, there is currently little strategic thought given to instruction of counsel. The decision of who to instruct is often taken at a remarkably low level. Entities in the future will purchase on the basis of best value.
“Best value is not of course just about money. A cheap yet poor service is not good value. Key issues will be cost, quality, customer service, consistency, efficiency, reliability and continuity.”
He argued that the dominant entities will be run by people with high-level commercial management experience and for the most part are unlikely to be lawyers. They will view the purchase of services from the Bar “as the sourcing of a necessary commodity required for the proper functioning of those businesses”.
Big firms will have big buying power, Mr Binks continued, that will “inevitably” look to get the best value that can by placing high volume with specific chambers or with specific groups of chambers – something he said Co-operative Legal Services is already doing.
“Chambers that wish to gear themselves up to compete for such work will need to plan and deliver as a unit. Failures by individual members who do not wish to comply with agreed standards may have catastrophic results for the whole. Like it or not – there will be ‘corporate responsibility’
“So do chambers need to act as businesses? For all but a small number, the answer must be yes.”
While a few practitioners will have such expertise, or operate in such niche areas, that “they will always find themselves in a sellers’ market”, this is not true for the majority of the Bar, he said. “It will start to make commercial sense to employ advocates to carry out what in some current volume operations may today be regarded as ‘niche’ or ‘specialist’ work. The rate and final extent of ingress depends on the independent Bar itself and on how quickly it can respond, if at all, to change. It must ensure that it is offering services which are attractive in new markets.”
Mr Binks said that those at the Bar who wish to remain in a form of independent practice should welcome the new Bar Business Standard. “As with all such standards, however, its requirements should be regarded as a threshold level at which to provide services rather than a level for which to aim; quality standards are a template against which to benchmark the operation of a successful businesses, not an end in themselves.”
However, the Bar Council’s proposals have run into opposition from the Chancery Bar Association, which said the traditional self-employed Bar, operating on the chambers model, “is put at risk by treating sets of chambers as if they are indistinguishable from corporate entities providing legal services”.