The law landscape is transforming as rapidly as any other business segment. Though bound by tradition and precedent, legal service providers are experiencing pressure through disruptive new business models and the changing expectations of its workforce. This also applies to the venerable institution of barristers’ chambers and the clerking system. How does the barrister clerk system adapt and embrace change to contribute and remain relevant as the law environment evolves? This paper discusses what we see as the major influencers of change and the challenges faced by the clerking fraternity.

Pressure is now being applied to BigLaw firms from their clients to demonstrate value for money. Other options are now available, including NewLaw firm models and the Big 4 accounting firms, which now employ more lawyers than traditional law firms.

As outlined by Dr George Beaton in his paper “How to recognise a NewLaw Firm”, the following distinctions are offered over traditional legal services:

  1. Alternative fee arrangements, with Fixed Fee being the norm
  2. Desire to streamline processes to maximise output largely driven by technology
  3. Willingness to partner with disruptive technologies
  4. Delivering work fit for purpose (not one size fits all)
  5. Flexible work practices that are scalable to match supply with demand

As Beaton summarises, NewLaw firms are completely re-engineering their underlying business model of legal service delivery.

Recognising this evolution, many traditional law firms are now also adapting their processes and offerings to meet the changing landscape and to remain competitive.

The Millennials

Enter the era of The Millennials, which now comprises over 50% of the legal profession and is on the increase. This is a generation who were raised by Baby Boomers and don’t want to repeat their professional mistakes. Collaborative, socially motivated, ambitious and tech-savvy, businesses need to recognise that work practices and attitudes will have to evolve to engage this group as clients, colleagues, or business partners.

In Jordan Furlong’s paper “The Rise of the Millennial Lawyer”, the takeaway points are:

  1. Desire to provide “just in time” legal services
  2. Set targets for gender and racial representation
  3. Non-lawyers will not just own equity, they will be indispensable providers of value
  4. Reliable fixed pricing using business intelligence and data analytics to guide good decisions
  5. Use the best technological tools to get the job done
  6. Priced to outcome, not effort

Clients as well as lawyers are Millennials. As Furlong suggests, if suppliers to these clients do not adjust to the new demographic realities, they will miss the chance of a lifetime and run the real risk of falling into the ditch of market irrelevance.

The Millennial Barrister

The same is true for the millennial barrister. Confident, independent, and motivated, this new wave of barristers will not put up with inefficiencies, particularly where technology could speed up the delivery of services. They are also looking for greater flexibility and many have joined the bar for this very reason. They want to be treated as individuals, not as numbers, and value personalised services.

Unless chambers can respond in ways where this new breed of barristers feel like their changing needs are being met and are getting value for their money, other more efficient structures that better suit their needs will be found.

The Change is Already Happening

To give one example of this: Clerksroom, an alternative model to the traditional London chambers, has created a new junior clerk position. The junior clerk has been trained to handle inquiries that deal with smaller matters not requiring the expertise of the senior clerking team. This new clerk can already handle inquiries from lay clients (“Public Access work”) and assign them to one of the 80 barristers who are part of the Clerksroom offering. However, this new junior clerk is not a real person! It is a “chatbot” clerk, specifically trained to interface with the public and handle simple tasks.

The introduction of this new chatbot for the Clerksroom is an effective time saver for clerks in relation to low value straightforward tasks. This means they can concentrate on tasks which require a higher level of engagement. You can read more about this chatbot in “Billy Bot threatens to replace Barrister Clerks”.

Current Barristers’ Chambers Landscape

Before considering how and why barristers’ chamber will have to adapt to their changing environment, it is worth exploring the current structure. For this purpose, we will focus on Australia (primarily eastern states) and the UK, where we have had the most direct experience.

In Melbourne there are 12 chambers (called Lists). These Lists may include barristers from different chambers. For example, barristers from one set of chambers may be spread across multiple Lists. The Lists range in size from 60 barristers through to over 300. Each List has at least one barrister clerk, and the larger lists have up to five clerks serving their members. The ratio of clerk to barrister is in the order of 50:1.

In Melbourne the clerk will be the central point for advising solicitors on availability and suitability of barristers for a particular matter and negotiating fees. The clerk will send out invoices for work done on behalf of the barrister, process payments and follow up outstanding fees.  

All mail will come to the clerk’s office first and then be delivered to the barristers. Barristers pay their clerks somewhere between 2% and 4% of their fees depending on which List they belong to for their services. Currently eight chambers are clerk-owned, while four chambers are barrister-owned. Most barristers rent their rooms.

In Sydney there are over 75 Chambers. These chambers range in size from a handful of barristers up to 100. Nearly all chambers have a clerk, although the role is not as clearly defined as other jurisdictions. The clerk can vary from administrative roles, to marketing and practice development. Chambers operate in a shared service model, where costs are shared amongst the membership on a monthly basis.

In Sydney, solicitors tend to brief barristers directly and through their own networks rather than use a clerk for recommendations. While the clerk is the main point of contact for availability and diary management, it is estimated that only 10% of new matters are referred or assigned by the clerk compared to 30% these types of matters in Melbourne. In Sydney, the barrister manages their own individual accounts and all chambers in Sydney are owned by their barristers. The fees paid for the services tend to be fixed on a monthly basis covering the outgoings of the chambers.

The Sydney Chambers are often referred to as floors and it is possible to buy a room on a floor, for example in the Selborne/Wentworth sets of chambers.

In Perth there are around 20 Chambers. These chambers vary in size and they do not utilise clerks. Solicitors deal directly with the barristers.

Brisbane is an interesting hybrid of the set-ups in Melbourne, Sydney, and Perth. There are chambers with no clerk; the largest commercial set of chambers employs a clerk; and there is one ‘List’ with a clerk covering multiple chambers.

In London there are over 450 chambers. All of these chambers employ clerks. The important distinction between the chambers in Australia and London is that the chambers in London have a lower ratio of barristers to clerk, around 10:1. In the larger chambers in the UK, clerks are assigned to a group or sub-groups of barristers, normally broken down by practice area (in multi-disciplinary chambers) or barrister seniority (in specialist chambers).

This enables the clerking teams to gain unrivalled knowledge of the skill sets (and personalities) of their barristers, as well as gaining invaluable insight within the specialist sectors in which they operate.     .

It is a full service offering, which includes but is not limited to: agreeing brief fees; writing up their fee notes, following through with the fee collection, and liaising with and listing cases with the courts. Many of the London chambers also have dedicated marketing departments, on site IT functions, HR, accounts teams, catering, and in some instances a chief executive or chambers director.

Perhaps the English system can be best summed up by Norman Birkett (1973): In this world there are three ‘We’s’. The Royal ‘We’. The Editorial ‘We’. And the Barrister and his Clerk ‘We’. And the greatest of these is the Barrister and his Clerk ‘We’.

Barristers in the UK pay between 10% to 20% for this level of service. Many chambers in the UK have also set up offshore branches in places like Singapore and Hong Kong. These outreach chambers are funded by increasing the overall annual chambers cost by a point or two. It could be argued that a percentage change from 17% to 19% to fund setting up a Singapore office is an easier sell to its members than a 4% to 6% increase in Melbourne. All the chambers in London are owned by their members.

The evolving chambers

In real estate, they say ‘Location, Location, Location’. With Chambers, the slogan could be ‘Value Add, Value Add, Value Add’. In order to find the time to Value Add, chambers should be looking to automate wherever possible. Working smarter, not harder, requires both taking stock of what chambers are currently doing and understanding what they could be doing to serve their clients more effectively.

In the case of clients, there are internal facing clients (barristers) and external facing clients (solicitors). Both need to be attended to. The good thing is they bring a similar set of expectations.

The one certain thing is that technology is a central and easily accessible component to making things more efficient. BillyBot (the chatbot clerk) demonstrates a clear example of this. Clerks can maintain their relevancy by harnessing these technological advancements, freeing up their time so they can focus on value adding to their clients.

One of the primary aims of any chambers would ideally be to make it as simple as possible for a solicitor to brief a barrister. For example, why should a solicitor have to phone or email chamber by chamber to find out who is available? A better solution for barristers, clerks, and law firms would be for solicitors to write one brief that is sent to a number of chambers, with the understanding that the clerk would return a list of recommendations within a defined timeframe.

A good example of innovation in this area was our recent introduction of BarristerSELECT into the Sydney market. As noted earlier, the Sydney market is very fragmented with over 75 chambers, and it is not straightforward for solicitors and in-house counsel to brief the best barristers for their matter. An easier way for them to find and brief barristers is through a centralised online service that addresses suitability and availability. This makes it faster and more transparent for the solicitors, means less telephone time for the clerk and more time to drive the careers of their barristers. This innovation continues to use the clerk to put forward the most suitable barristers for a particular matter but does it in a far more efficient way.

Looking into the future, NewLaw is not about solving one set of problems, but contains within it a multidisciplinary approach. Similarly, NewLaw chambers will create similar offerings by partnering with companies that offer services that are useful to its clients (both internal and external).

The NewLaw chambers will drive technology solutions into their business to create efficiency. There are many avenues for chambers to improve efficiencies, but this requires a real mind shift from the clerks and chambers to let go of what they have done previously and build a new charter, based on what is possible now. This includes finding trusted partners in technology and other disciplines that add real value for members, and creates easier access for their external clients (solicitors and in-house counsel). This will enable clients to operate efficiently and avoid the frustration of antiquated business practices.

There is a huge opportunity for clerks to move into the world of new law and the role of trusted partner that utilises technology to increase efficiencies that meet the current needs of the barristers and solicitors they serve.

In doing so, clerks need not fear their role becoming redundant; instead they can look forward to the greater security of technology enabling them to increasingly value add their services to their clients.

Stephen Foley is Founder and Managing Director of TA Law. Rather than follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as a clerk in Melbourne, he builds technology solutions that improve the efficiencies of chambers. With the advent of cloud-based technologies, the last ten years has seen a quantum leap in what is now possible. Understanding and seeking to leverage these changes, Stephen also appreciates that this brings its own insecurities, particularly for clerks who are in the middle of this change process.

My thanks to Daniel Perry (Level Twenty Seven Chambers) and Tobias O’Hehir (Greenway Chambers) for their suggestions and in particular the structure of the London and Sydney chambers respectively.