Clerksroom Direct: public access in motion

Clerksroom Chambers was created 15 years ago out of a passionate belief that it was time for change at the Bar. It took years for the model to be accepted by both the Bar and the legal industry (particularly the Bar) as we are a limited company led by a Managing Director owner and one other stakeholder and operate nationally as a virtual chambers supported by a full clerking team in Taunton.

We have devised new ways in which a chambers can use the internet and digital technology for marketing, attracting new talent and educating the sector and have now grown to support 80+ barristers, have significant contractual arrangements with the leading legal brands across the UK and are seen as a valuable and professional alternative to the traditional chambers structure. It hasn’t always been easy but our clients and the wider market now fully understand that we have modelled our advocacy business to suit their financial, legal and growth needs. Not only do we understand their business, we are able to make the investment and management decisions to steer our brand nimbly into their instruction books. While other chambers may lag behind, with barrister-led arguments about who leads a team or how much money should be spent on their practice, we are able to streamline decision-making processes and advance quickly, with an unashamedly commercial agenda, benefitting our busy barristers along the way and, importantly, offering clarity, strength, depth and cost-effectiveness to clients.

Clerksroom Direct

Clerksroom Direct, the UK’s largest direct access brand, was launched online on 1 January 2015. We have over 1,850 chambers and 1,000+ direct access barristers connected to the system, offering the largest pool of talent to customers directly. As you will read on to understand, we have not only taken up the gauntlet of entering into this market, we have the resources, ambition and capacity to make it work for our clients – both traditional and new. As you will see, not only have we been able to move swiftly and strategically into this market, we have also lined up core marketing partners who have helped us to get the message out there; overcoming one of the biggest challenges for Direct Access – that the Bar is now ready for business, wherever it comes from.

The public access challenge

Public access to barristers directly or through chambers is increasing in popularity at quite a pace as more and more people realise that they can now go direct. Whilst the rule change goes back to 2004, the reality is that the market has been slow to react – where have we heard that before?!

My view is that the key reason for the slow take up is directly related to the ability of a chambers to fund advertising through traditional or digital channels. Not a lot has changed if I’m being honest. I think it is highly unlikely that a chambers will buy air time on major TV channels during the day time in the same way that other law firms seem to be able to do. The reality is that barristers are sole practitioners and need to be clever about getting the message across if the marketed is to be properly exploited.

There is now a change in the mood and things are beginning to gather momentum at quite a pace. New websites like the Bar Council supported DPA, My Barrister, Shensmith Barristers, Absolute Barristers and Direct Barristers are helping to raise awareness amongst legal consumers of the simple fact that members of the public can in fact go direct to a barrister and, more often than not, it’s cheaper.

Our solution

Clerksroom Direct was born out of the total frustration of the clerking problems created by the growth of direct access enquiries. It is frustrating to understand that it now often takes a highly paid clerk an hour or more to discuss how to send papers to a barrister, cover what the client might like to send, have a clear understanding of the merits of the case and the client’s ability to pay, before a barrister even agrees to accept a direct access case. Clerks didn’t like the emerging direct access process either but we have to react to the market and re-invent ourselves – which is what the Bar has been so good at doing in the past.

The result of the hour-long call was that the client would send some papers, passport and proof of address and the barrister would look at it, offer a quote and sort out the paperwork, prepare the client care letter and then see if the client would like to proceed. Conversion rate at the time was approximately 20 per cent, with many clients simply never coming back.

Key to this problem is that clerks are not sales people; clerks are not trained to convert the client into a sale. They don’t have the resources to follow up a latent direct access enquiry and it’s not been part of their job remit to do so. Clerks often have great people skills and have a real desire to help people but in a different context to the more modern sales-driven business development roles.

A clerk’s skill set is quite unique and to be commended but, with public access enquiries, the most important role is the sales role because we need to know if a potential client wants to buy the service we offer. Compare the modern sales-push role with the traditional (and let’s face it, fantastic) situation the Bar has enjoyed for years – where pretty much every call from a solicitor with instructions for counsel is converted into a sale – and you see why clerks’ sales skills are generally not fit-for purpose in the public access market

Creating an effective proposition, sales strategy and sourcing the right skills requires an understanding of the needs and wants of our marketplace as well as the barriers to conversion for Direct Access. Our approach was to firstly map the process of instructing a barrister from a client’s perspective, incorporate the public access rules, compliance requirements and payment processing systems. We also looked at the problem from the clerk’s point of view and assessed the barristers’ needs and the politics that exist between the barristers, clerks and committees.

We soon realised that a number of the stakeholders had competing objectives, the investment required to build a secure online portal to automate the process was considerable (£100k+), and the need to provide telephone support and marketing meant the task of building a new system from a clean sheet of paper was huge. With 15 years’ experience of innovation at the Bar, a strong company structure and a team of 20 experienced clerks and staff we were able to put a clear plan together and build our portal. However, it became obvious from the very early days that to build a system of this complexity and cost needed to be a system for the Bar as a whole, not just our own members.

The outcome is a portal where barristers can add their profile at no cost, their clerks are engaged and copied into communications and issues such as compliance and public access requirements are automated using soft searches (such as digital signatures and email verification). Couple this with automated client care letters and integrated payment processing systems (to PCI level 3) and the portal can thus allow the client, barrister and clerk to be effectively matched to the right enquiry. Clerks and barristers can then communicate with the client, quote fees, automate compliance and accept pre-payment of agreed fees. Over 1,000 barristers from 180+ chambers have now added their profiles to the portal and our conversion rate has increased to 40% over the past four months since the system officially launched.

Our open and transparent approach means the fees quoted are clear and clarify the cost of the barrister and the portal fee. Portal fees are used to re-invest into marketing, providing us with a significant budget to spend on Google Ads and Facebook. A substantial part of our learning as we continue down the path of this brave new world has been to test and measure Google Ad spend using the latest online tracking tools, mapping click-throughs to client spend. At that point you gain control over your marketing, allowing you to spend money on Google Ads that produce income and quickly turn off Google Ads that don’t.

Competing with solicitors?

With regards to the age-old argument of barristers competing directly with solicitors, it’s worth mentioning that Direct Access isn’t simply a game of “us v them”. Clerksroom Direct actually works closely with and to the benefit of many UK law firms.

We have referred hugely valuable claims to departments as we identify cases that demand an experienced solicitor. This is our regulatory obligation – one we take seriously as it’s in the best interest of the consumer. It’s also a benefit to the many high profile practices we work with. For consumers, it offers more control, greater clarity of fees and wider alternative options to seek resolution to their claim.

We are constantly looking at ways of improving the portal and it’s clear there is much to do to develop the journey for clients and for barristers but with 1,300 now engaged in the process we are confident that we are on the right path.

Like it or not, professionals at the Bar are being marketed directly to the consumer and clients are happy and willing to pay for their legal support. Albeit I’m talking about a smaller percentage of the overall consumer base at present but with slick marketing campaigns and numerous marketing partners, the fight to deliver professional and value-for-money legal advice to consumers (in the way they want it) is well and truly on.

Stephen Ward is the founder and managing director of Clerksroom Chambers, Clerksroom Mediators and Clerksroom Direct. Email Twitter @clerksroom.