IT and practice management for chambers

There are not as many IT and practice management services for barristers as for solicitors but there are some very strong players available.

Here are the key players in this market (based on my web page, followed by two short articles from key providers of services to chambers, Martin Poulter and Helen Ford, providing a view of the past, the present and the future.

Ascot Drummond provides a broad range of accountancy, taxation and advisory services to many industries, including the Bar. They assist their clients in making informed business decisions and regulatory compliance, freeing them to concentrate on core business activities. They are based in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, and serve the whole of the UK.

Bar Marketing concentrates its skills on helping members of the Bar to compete in an ever changing and increasingly competitive market. Services include the formulation of strategies, planning and multi-channel execution. They can help with new business generation, client retention, press, PR and events, webinars, social media and the web. Director Catherine Bailey’s knowledge of the legal directory submission system (especially Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500) is first-rate.

Bar Squared are the authors of leading software LEX Chambers Management. Launched in 2007, the software is live in over 240 chambers worldwide and is now used by 70 per cent of the UK market. LEX offers: Multi-view Diary, Case Management, Fees and Billing Contract Management, Graduated Fees, Workflow, Drill Through Reporting, Marketing, CRM (client and prospective solicitors), Solicitor profiling, Mail Merge, Campaign Management, Diary to Exchange and to Blackberry/Windows Mobile, Practice Analysis, Document Management, Time Recording, Costs Budgeting, System Resilience, LEX for Mobile IE, iPhone app, Android app, advanced data security, integrated marketing facilities.

Chambers People is a consultancy and staff recruitment service for barristers’ chambers and law firms right across England and Wales. They provide staff recruitment at all levels of clerking and non-clerking posts, and they provide a full range of training sessions for staff in chambers. They also provide help to chambers on Bar Mark accreditation services, Business Development work, Market Research, and Freelance Clerking including fee collection. The company director is an experienced former Senior Clerk and Chambers Director, Martin Poulter.

Clerksroom is the administrative hub of a nationwide Barristers Chambers with meeting & mediation facilities in London, Manchester and Taunton (where the team of over 20 staff are located). There is also a robot junior clerk called Billy Bot which is not just for a laugh – serious development work on this topic is in progress. They offer a national service with a single point of contact. Direct Access Barristers are covered with an associated website and service, Clerksroom Direct.

Legal RSS, run by well-known legal marketing guru Joe Reevy, provides systems to allow a chambers with commentaries on issues to provide tailored newsfeeds to practices which are updated as soon as the item is posted on the chambers’ website. The system allows for automated social media marketing with high quality content, integrated event management software, and automatic content sharing.

My Bar Accountant is an innovative firm of accountants who were early pioneers in the field of cloud accounting. They provide a range of accountancy, taxation and advisory services and specialise in a select number of industries, including the Bar, where they provide real value to both barristers and their chambers. They operate a “pay what you want strategy” and indeed, the website defaults to

SproutIT, based in Fleet Street, are specialists in supporting and evolving networks, hardware and software in the legal industry covering everything from technical support to high level consultancy, project management and IT strategy. They are particularly active in cloud solutions. From diary migrations and case management, to document and contact management systems, they have worked with the industry leading software vendors.

How technology for chambers has dramatically changed

By Martin Poulter

I started my career as a young barristers’ clerk in Lincoln’s Inn over 40 years ago. The technology consisted of manual typewriters, telephones, and a photocopier the size of a Mini. That machine regularly billowed black smoke when the drum inside that put black soot onto the paper jammed and the paper inside caught fire. This led to plumes of smoke erupting (no flames) into the air and polluting the whole of the building.

The next piece of kit to arrive was a golf ball typewriter. This was as noisy as a tube on the Northern Line when put to use.

Along came the next form of baffling technology – the Telex machine. Ours was a machine which contained a small green screen and was the most basic of word processers.

As I was the youngest member of staff, I was the only person given instructions on how to use this beast of a machine. This resulted in me being the only operator, spending hours and hours copy typing the inebriated spider writing of one of the Bar’s greatest minds and turning it into an Opinion to be sent to the other side of the world.

The fax machine appeared in chambers and started to overtake the Telex, but the early machines did not have a guillotine, so a long toilet roll of paper would be on the floor many days, like an Andrex puppy had been at work, and each page sent had to be separated with scissors.

In those dim and distant days (sometimes very dim as we had to work through power cuts to save energy) the record of the work done by the barrister was on a card system. The details about each case that the member of chambers did were typed onto an A5 piece of card and then when the fees were ready to send out each card was photocopied (when the copier worked) and posted out to the instructing solicitor who might sometimes send back a cheque.

The diary was the main source of all things. The huge, two pages to a day, thick, red leather-bound volume, was used to record everything. Information about all future events was written in pencil and then, only the night before the next day’s work was due to commence, was that entry in the diary “inked in”. The Diary recorded all the important details: court location/division (Court of Appeal, High Court etc) and the name of the case, the instructing solicitor’s details, and the most important detail – the fee for the case.

All this information was then transferred after every day had been completed onto the card system and a ceremonious large “tick” was made in the diary to say that all the fees earned had been billed.

Fast forward to 2018

Barristers’ diary records are all kept on sophisticated case management systems online and up in the cloud. Paper (and card) has been reduced to a minimum.

Fees notes are now emailed to professional clients and no longer is the barristers’ clerk spending time folding pieces of paper, stuffing envelopes and franking them on some very expensive machine.

Case or practice management now consists of a lot of cut and paste. This does sometimes lead to too much technology and not enough thought by the barristers’ clerk. Although it is easy and quick to keep, maintain, update and view records on all sorts of screens – little or large – it is easy to forget the human side of managing chambers and a disconnect (literally) with members of chambers should not be allowed to happen.

The case record systems now used, like those from Meridian and Lex, are complex adding machines, which now enable data to be recorded in a wink and retrieved for analysis and practice management purposes.

Aged debt – the record of the unpaid fees that are due to the members of chambers – is now something that can be gauged at the drop of a hat. In the olden times, a pile of fee cards, and a hand cranked adding machine was the only way of checking the total outstanding, although a clerk who could see a huge pile of fee records knew that some fees “chasing” was going to be required.

The information held on the computer records now makes the calculation of the “work done” figures for the purpose of insurance premiums easier. The Bar Mutual Indemnity Fund needs to know what a barristers’ practice type has been in a preceding year, in order that they can assess the premium. The computer systems has made that task easier for all, although barristers’ clerks do have to remember what “work type” they should use when a new case is added to the system for the first time, to ensure the barrister does not pay a higher premium.

Electronic listing of cases by the courts and checking to make sure that a case that might be “warned” is not now the complicated system it was many years ago. In the past, once a day, a small crocodile of junior barrister’ clerks would trudge across to the List Office in the Royal Courts of Justice (other courts are available) and then scan with their own eyes the lists of cases to spot where their own barrister was going to appear the next day, then return to chambers to tell the barrister, the other clerks and then the professional client (by phone). Now CourtServe does the whole thing automatically – the software does a “search and find” and then alerts the chambers with messages through the electronic diary, which makes missing a case a thing of the past. Mostly. It all depends on the initial entry being recorded correctly from the start of course.

The fees systems, as long as the entries made on them are accurate, are powerful tools for marketing. Once a barristers’ clerk had very little data to work with without considerable time looking through paper records or the skimming the large diary to see trends in work – when were barristers’ busiest in court, and when they were they quiet.

These days, most of the work coming into chambers is by email. This creates its own nightmare problems when the internet that we all rely on now for life itself, stops working.

The telephones no longer ring off the hook, and no longer is a sack full of post containing heavy packages and boxed of papers, delivered by the Royal Mail. Which is a pity in a way as it always felt like Christmas every day.

The most important change that the internet has made to barristers’ lives is that they now have the ability to work almost anywhere there is a phone signal. This also means that the barrister and their clerking staff are always available (or perceived to be available) to one and all by email, text, WhatsApp etc.

While this is generally good, and speeds up justice no doubt, the penalty is the pressure that it creates having an “always on” society. That is not good for our well-being and the increase in the number of barristers with mental health problems as a result attests to this.

And this applies not just the barristers; increasing stress-related problems are experienced by barristers’ clerks as they try to maintain work supplies and have to work longer and longer hours just to maintain services in a highly competitive world.

Martin Poulter is Director of Chambers People Limited Email Twitter @chamberspeople.

Welcoming the GDPR?

By Helen Ford

There is no doubt that the GDPR has brought with it some unique challenges and whilst it’s difficult to believe at this stage, some of them may have a positive effect on chambers’ infrastructure.

Traditionally, clerks have been provided with a central chambers management system and barristers, who can be granted secure access, have had little interaction with it. Without doubt, change is required if chambers are going to manage their obligations under the GDPR and there are many reasons why IT and practice management systems will become central in the lives of all in chambers.

If chambers, as a data processor on behalf of a barrister, is to assist in meeting their combined obligations under the GDPR, a common document storage policy and integration of documents with chambers management software will be key.

Centralised storage of documents, whilst commonplace elsewhere, is by no means the norm in chambers. It is more likely that barristers will utilise various storage facilities, their PC or laptop, cloud storage, eg Dropbox, Google Drive, One Drive or other methods chosen individually. If an holistic approach to document storage is adopted, links to chambers management systems can easily be implemented that will allow clerks to share documents and files with barristers, without size limits being a problem, whilst the data sits securely encrypted in a compliant storage facility. Print and courier costs are significantly reduced, secure, remote access can be provided via iOS (Apple), Android or Windows devices and content kept safe using Bank-level encryption in transit and at rest.

Barristers retain control, are able to share documents with colleagues and clients and retract that permission at any time. If documents are shared, it can be done giving view only access or editing rights so that collaborative working is possible, without having numerous copies of the document and document versioning helps track any changes.

Download permission can be granted and documents watermarked if they are printed so that there is a permanent record of who is responsible for document security. Be sure that information barriers are kept in place and it’s a simple environment to work in that makes sure regulatory obligations met.

If barristers have a preferred way of storing case documents, their own folder structures can be created automatically so they don’t have to change the way they work. Central storage also allows the clerks and chambers management software to keep a watchful eye, monitoring document retention policies and reminding barristers when they should review case files and delete documents.

Centralised storage brings other benefits as documents, emails and their attachments, pdf and other files, even those from instructing solicitors and other third parties, can be linked to applications where preparing, building and delivering legal arguments or opinions can be achieved much faster.

Once uploaded, the digital client file is then immediately available to work on; fully editable content with search facilities. All files can be reviewed and the key points of a matter analysed, legal opinion provided and even e-bundles created. This significantly reduces the time and resource needed to deliver high quality legal outcomes, alongside delivering much shorter turnaround times and increased profitability.

In particular, direct access barristers can benefit from being able to collect relevant information from clients quickly and securely then prepare their digital case file and reduce the time taken to build their case.

Adopting and adapting to change can present many time and cost saving opportunities and bring benefits to chambers as a whole.

25 May is the beginning of significant change. With an open mind and good planning, it will bring a wealth of opportunities that will improve working practices.

Helen Ford is a founder and Managing Director of Bar Squared, the authors of LEX Chambers Management. Email Twitter @BarSquaredLex.

Delia Venables is joint editor of this Newsletter. Email Twitter @deliavenables.