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Sponsored briefing: The journey travelled in building a modern barristers’ chambers

Amanda Illing discusses the process of building a modern barristers’ chambers

Last week, by chance I opened a box that had been untouched in our old basement for many years. Inside was a treasure chest of barristers’ chambers’ history – the diaries! Eight huge, beautiful red and blue leather-bound diaries from 1980 to 1987. Back then, barristers’ livelihoods (their cases, hearings, court location, solicitor instructing and agreed fees) would be manually recorded day by day in this one diary and used by all the ‘clerks’ (often thrown across the room) in order to engage a barrister for a piece of work or a court appearance.

We’ve come a long way since then. The most obvious step has been the development of technology. We now use case management and diary systems that can be accessed remotely to share diaries, data, run reports, link to financial accounting software and deal with marketing and CRM activity. A modern barristers’ chambers will be expected to have the latest technology: AV/IT equipment to run online and hybrid hearings and events, good client hospitality space and internal collaboration space to aid productive working relationships and wellbeing.

However, there are many other ways we have modernised at the Bar. Like in any sector, every barristers’ chambers is different, with its own personality and priorities.

Barristers’ chambers are relatively lean, umbrella organisations, built on a collection of their self-employed barrister parts. Chambers go through different management and organisational cycles (rent, budget, committees, refurbishment, appointment of heads of chambers). They manage a variety of topics including risk and regulation, or staff and barrister recruitment; but must also be ready when something comes along with the potential to damage reputation, brand or income like a cyber breach, a pandemic, and (as happened to us) urgent consideration and decision to change our trading name (from Hardwicke to Gatehouse Chambers) when it emerged that the old name had adverse connotations with the slave trade.

Many barristers’ chambers now behave like corporates. Our regulator the BSB treats us like corporates in its reporting requirements. Most barristers leave the running of their organisations to teams of staff professionals, some longstanding in the sector, alongside new entrants with different backgrounds, skills and expertise.

Modern chambers will have a suite of organisational structures and policies with measures such as a constitution, parental leave schemes for barristers and other mechanisms to operate in a modern, ethical and sustainable way.

Chambers invest time and resources in building a corporate brand and marketing and profiling individuals as well as practice area groups and teams. Even in the old days some traded as ‘the chambers of”X Barrister” QC’, or from a building address. When they relocated, they took their location address as their brand name with them to a new address. Increasingly, chambers trade under names not associated with a person or location.

So, what defines a modern chambers? I would suggest it’s down to resources, policies and attitudes.

Chambers are financed through a percentage contribution from barristers’ fee income and usually some other fixed service charge element, like room rent. The percentage rates and other charges vary from chambers to chambers. Modern chambers will have a suite of organisational structures and policies with measures such as a constitution, parental leave schemes for barristers and other mechanisms to operate in a modern, ethical and sustainable way. They encourage retention, now that movement amongst barristers and staff in chambers is relatively common-place.

A modern chambers will have the necessary resources to run a range of other activities that often mirror their solicitor client base, including CSR ESG programmes, mentoring schemes, and advanced training and development of staff. It will be working hard to ensure that recruitment practices reflect the modern-day workplace. You can build a modern chambers through your people.

Gatehouse Chambers’ work is mostly privately paid commercial, construction, property and insurance work which allows us to be well resourced. For those in criminal or family law, or others whose work streams or incomes have been recently squeezed, even surviving, let alone investing in modernising will be a challenge.

A modern chambers will have good management, reporting and governance structures so that senior staff managers who collaborate and communicate well as a team make decisions with only strategic oversight and without being micro-managed. A past head of chambers taught me an important lesson to check on every decision, because it will affect the livelihoods of every person in chambers and their families, potentially hundreds of people.

I joined a barristers’ chambers in 1999 after spending my first 12 years working in the Crown Prosecution Service as a case worker, a project manager, and then as the private secretary to the director of public prosecutions. I was used to barristers and courts, and indeed politicians. I was even used to negotiating substantial fees with barristers’ clerks. But notwithstanding my many years of experience, at quite a senior level, when I joined chambers and went in to my first clerks’ room I was still the only woman and an outsider.

Going back to the discovery of those diaries, I looked to see what was happening in the old Hardwicke Chambers on the day I had started work in the civil service – Monday 27 July 1987. I turned the huge pages to take a look. Two pages of beautiful handwriting in blue ink, usually the preserve of only the senior clerk and first junior clerk: the initials of barristers, the case name, court, and instructing solicitor. Something at the bottom of the page jumped out at me. Written in pencil, in very familiar handwriting: ‘Jason away’. It was written by Jason Housden, whose first job in 1986 was as a junior clerk at Hardwicke. Jason was always someone with an enthusiasm for IT, systems and modernisation and we went on to work together in another chambers 20 years later. Jason is now chambers director at Henderson Chambers. I sent him a video message of me opening the diary, turning the pages and zooming in on the day and his note at the bottom, made nearly 35 years ago.

It’s all very well putting the structure in place to build modern barristers’ chambers as we have both done, but this unearthed Jurassic treasure brought a tear to the eye, a nod of respect to the past, and reminded us of the journey we have both travelled.

Amanda Illing
Gatehouse Chambers

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