"Pessimistic" barristers lukewarm about ABSs

The Bar: barristers are proud of what they do

Barristers are showing only “cautious interest” in alternative business structures (ABSs), although they are keener on barrister-only entities (BOEs), according to a major survey released yesterday.

The poll of 3,000 barristers found that half of those in private practice are considering working in a BOE, while 28% indicated that this is “maybe” an option. Some 21% are considering ABSs and 43% “maybe”.

But when asked if they agreed that “the new entities enabled under the Legal Services Act represent exciting opportunities for the Bar”, just 17% of self-employed barristers and 25% of employed barristers did. The survey described this as “barely lukewarm support”.

Nonetheless, ABSs and other structural changes scored high on practitioners’ list of challenges, second only to reductions in work and fees.

The survey, conducted for the Bar Council and Bar Standards Board, highlighted “a worrying lack of optimism in the profession with more than half thinking that demand is decreasing”.

Further, 49% did not think they are paid fairly for their expertise (only 8% did), while a similar number disagreed with statements such as “I would recommend the Bar as a career”, “Most days I am enthusiastic about my work” and “I have good opportunities to progress my career”.

The Bar was not seen as a family friendly profession, while two-thirds think it is difficult to work part time as a barrister.

A majority (70%), however, would still opt for the Bar if they could start their career again, while other results indicated higher levels of happiness: overall barristers are proud of what they do and the contribution they make to society, and enjoy the variety, interest and challenge of their work.

The survey highlighted the Bar’s reliance on publicly funded work; for 43% of those surveyed, legal aid makes up more than half of their wor

k. This is in turn leading to a downturn in work – nearly a third of criminal practitioners reported that their workload has decreased over the previous year, while half said their gross billed income has fallen (compared to 30% overall).

One in three barristers listed criminal law as their main practice area, with another one in seven working mainly in family law and 10% in personal injury.

The demographics of respondents confirmed many conceptions of the Bar: 43% went to a fee-paying school, while almost a third went to Oxbridge, while women feature more prominently in employment than private practice.

Women at the Bar are less likely than their male peers to be married or have children and more likely to be divorced. The results indicated little support for the notion of the Bar as family friendly and raised questions over how accessible a career at the Bar is to everyone of ability.

The survey also found “a high level of ambivalence about the role of the Bar Council and BSB, with fewer than a third of respondents agreeing that the Bar Council represents the interests of the profession well, or that the BSB is an effective regulator of the profession, and only 14% say that the member services fee represents good value for money. Nearly a half responded ‘neutrally’ to these items”.

Bar Council chairman Michael Todd QC said: “The results of the survey show that the profession is more diverse now than ever, but that more can be done to support working parents, as we are doing through our campaign for a Bar nursery for example.

“We can also see a keen interest from the profession in alternative business structures as a means of meeting the demands of the current legal services market, and the Bar Council will seek to support and facilitate these changes.”

BSB chairman Baroness Ruth Deech, said: “The results reinforce my belief that our new Equality and Diversity Rules are needed to ensure appropriate parental leave measures are in place, there is fair allocation of work within the self-employed Bar and improvements to recruitment processes are made.”

The survey, entitled Barristers’ Working Lives, is the first in a planned series of biennial surveys of the Bar.



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