Experienced barristers are largely confident for their own futures but face challenges around wellbeing, the rising cost of doing business and the late payment of fees, a major survey has found.
It also showed a strategic split between those who thought they were better specialising in the future and those who planned to diversify.
LexisNexis UK surveyed 768 barristers, of whom 79% had been in practice for more than a decade, for its report A brave new Bar.
Just over a third (37%) said their practices had grown in past three years – levels stayed the same for 36% and declined for 21% – while 39% expected them to grow over the next three to five years.
Unsurprisingly, civil barristers were more likely to report growth than criminal, but two-thirds of criminal barristers who responded said their practices had grown or stayed steady in recent years and 58% expected more of the same in the next few.
The report said: “However, when we asked our barristers about the future of the Bar itself, the outlook was far less positive. Many cited cuts to legal aid and the move towards fixed costs as major threats.”
However, asked to rank the most critical challenge facing them, barristers picked ‘managing wellbeing and resilience’, followed by increased costs – “excessive rents and business rates are threatening profitability and work satisfaction” – delays in receiving fees in private cases, technology challenges and increased regulation.
There were mixed views on how to develop a sustainable business, with 44% of barristers highlighting increasing specialisation, while 26% pointing by contrast towards developing a mixed practice. But nearly half of those who wanted to diversify said they did not have the support they needed to do it, in particular in relation to marketing.
There was also a strong call for greater collaboration between barristers in chambers.
Direct access was still a small minority of barristers’ work – they said that on average, 92% of their work still came through solicitors, and many feared doing more direct access would annoy instructing solicitors and force them to devote more of “their already scant time” to dealing with clients.
“There is optimism across the profession, but clearly the Bar is at breaking point,” said Christopher O’Connor, head of segment marketing at LexisNexis.
“How barristers operate, and approach work will have to change, for the Bar to be able to futureproof their sector within the legal profession.
“Chambers need to consider new tools and legal technology that can free their barristers and staff from time-consuming manual tasks to reduce long working hours and open up new business development avenues.”