The meaning of the word “chambers” depends on who you ask, or where you look for the answer. The Bar Standards Board defines the word through the code of conduct and its use has many meanings in the code. The Bar Standards Board and the Bar Council records office allow you to elect to be a “chambers” or to practice as a sole practitioner. The code varies depending on your choice. This is simply an option when completing your Bar Council return.
A dictionary definition of “chambers” is “(in England) the quarters or rooms that lawyers use to consult with their clients, esp. in the Inns of Court.”
Barristers’ clerks have always worked in “chambers”, in the “Clerksroom”, but now we are being asked to come up with innovative and alternate business structures. Many Chambers have had ABSs for years. Atkin Chambers is a prime example as the clerking arrangements have been conducted via a limited company ever since I was a junior clerk, over 25 years ago. “Procurement companies” are nothing new in my view. (The concept of a procurement company was proposed recently by a Bar Council taskforce and means the setting up of corporate or commercial vehicles to wed together advocacy, litigation, advisory and other legal skills.)
I think we need to challenge the general view that “chambers” is where barristers sit all day long and perhaps look closely at the dictionary wording to confirm that the “chambers” element for the barrister is, in fact, the “consulting with clients” element, not the “sitting in their own room” all day part. If barristers prefer to use the word “chambers” when setting up a meeting with a professional and lay client in their office, it is interesting to ask the solicitor client what they understand “chambers” to mean. The responses are wide and varied, so it does not always make me feel we are being straightforward or clear to our clients. Why not simply say that counsel has a meeting room at ”¦?
It has long been my view that providing a room for a barrister in a building in a city centre location costs about 6-10 per cent of the chambers rent. Outside London it’s more likely to be around 6 per cent but in London, it’s at least 10 per cent.
Solicitors often think that if counsel are in a traditional chambers, then they all work together, they share work when unable to accept a case and they share knowledge between themselves. Solicitors prefer to use “chambers”, rather than a “sole practitioner” because they feel they have more support. There are of course some high profile exceptions to this general view, but it’s the minority of successful practitioners who prefer to practice as a sole practitioner with a single clerk to reduce overheads and manage their personal practice.
Clerksroom is an alternative business structure and was set up with Bar Council approval in April 2001. We challenged the view that a barrister could only practice in a traditional chambers, or from home as a sole practitioner. Our name suggests that we are a Clerksroom for sole practitioners who wish to work for themselves, unattached from the traditional chambers model with no politics, just a simple contract with a company that provides clerking services to them to the same standard as a traditional, well run chambers. The Bar Council’s practice management guidelines clearly set out what is expected of a competent Clerksroom so our service was developed around this set of standards.
So why is Clerksroom different from a “normal” chambers? The answer is simply that we don’t have rooms in our offices for barristers to sit and work in all day, every day. Our head office is based in Taunton, Somerset, as far away from our barristers as is sensible and our team of 15 clerks are all located in the same building, providing 24/7 support to our counsel via the telephone, email, web, post and DX.
Our barristers (currently 55, including 3 QCs) all work from home, saving between 6 and 10 per cent of the normal chambers fees by using their own office at home with a broadband link to Clerksroom at almost nil cost. Free broadband is now common and most members make full use of that.
We offer Blackberry/iPhone support, PDA sync, remote diary and complete case file access, web access to a remote desktop and a whole host of other support services. Our library is online.
The key to the success of this system, developed over the past 9 years with Iris Meridian Law is that it is incredibly simple to use and requires no IT knowledge.
The key question we are asked by barristers wishing to join us is how do we get papers to them. We organise a DX box for every counsel, or they can use our DX boxes at our conference and mediation centres around the UK, if they live locally to them. The DX at home service is about £250 per year and provides the barrister with (where available) a 24/7 local collection point for papers. We answer all incoming telephone calls from our Taunton office, transfer the caller to the barrister’s home or mobile. The case record is updated with the communication each time.
Faxes are converted to emails by our servers and reviewed by case admin, then logged and passed onto counsel. We have invested heavily in scanning technology and can now scan a lever arch file of papers into the system in about 1 minute. We have mailing and marketing machines that produce material, fold and stuff into envelopes allowing us to market to all UK firms quite easily by letter. Email technology has allowed us to develop an extensive email marketing suite with 33,000+ opt in solicitors asking to receive our client updates.
Going back to the “chambers” point, the key from our point of view has been to develop a network of conference or consulting rooms around the UK where our barristers can meet clients. These days most solicitors prefer counsel to visit them so the conference rooms are mainly used for cases where the solicitor and client live far apart and they wish to meet in the middle. We set up centres in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Taunton where our head office is also located.
Support and IT
We have no in-house IT. It is all outsourced to Iris Meridian Law. Frankly, we don’t need to know how it works. We pay a monthly sum to Iris for them to make it work and be available to us 24/7. We have planned maintenance as and when needed so the system does need to be closed for 1 hour during the night every so often. We have no servers in the Clerksroom. Our offices simply have a broadband link costing £15 pcm to the server farm and that’s not our responsibility. Our in-house IT is limited to making sure the broadband works, virus control and setting up printers to print from our PCs. Since changing to this model, we have extended the 6mb broadband connection to 4 sets of routers so we now have 24mb broadband allowing us to have a choice of 4 connections in case of failure. It has worked well for 9 years now.
We have passed this saving back to the barrister members and fixed our costs at 10 per cent of fees received each month.
Working from home
On a practical note, what would you need if you wanted to work from home? Simply a PC and a basic knowledge of how to use it. If you can use the internet, Word and other basic programs, you will be fine. You also need a good printer and we suggest everyone buys a quality fast laser that is compatible with most IT systems, like a good HP machine. You will need broadband and a local DX box. Other than that, you need the ability to be self motivated and disciplined to work from home and manage your time efficiently.
Does Clerksroom get involved in other areas of business? Yes, a key point of a “procurement company”, or ABS is that you can explore various other legal related business opportunities that may be presented. Clerksroom now runs a mediation service, the National Mediation Helpline for the Ministry of Justice Civil Division, the National Family Mediation Service for the Ministry of Justice Family Division and has secured various other related tenders for supply of administration services. The key bonus to members is that income derived from other areas of business allows us to continually develop our staff, our facilities and our IT for the benefit of all our members who all pay 10 per cent of income. Members are not asked to contribute to additional items, investment or extended services, other than personal library services.
Is Clerksroom a virtual chambers?
In summary, there appears to be very little that is actually “virtual” about the way Clerksroom is operating. You could say it’s a “procurement company”, or a service company, or a business. Our barristers are self employed, sole practitioners working from 55 home based offices around the UK and increasingly, globally. We now have members based in Ireland, Spain, India and New Zealand as well as the UK. Our members are spread nationally from Cornwall to North Yorkshire, East Sussex to Lancashire. All our members are full time and over 3 years call.
We are able to cover every UK court using our own members but we do struggle in a few limited places and have traditional, excellent relationships with local chambers in those areas to ensure we have cover. Our facilities in London, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Taunton provide meeting and mediation rooms as required, our data centre and server farm is out there somewhere (presumably Iris Meridian Law know where but we don’t need to know).
Would Clerksroom suit all Barristers? No, our way of working is suited to motivated, self-marketing, confident individuals with a good existing client following. Unfortunately, these are not common strengths of the Bar, in my opinion.
Stephen Ward has been a barristers’ clerk since 1983, becoming a senior clerk in 1993. He is now Managing Director of Clerksroom, with a team of 15 staff, overseeing its worldwide operations.