Growing a successful public access practice: strategies and skills for success

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Originally published on the Thomson Reuters Legal Solutions UK & Ireland Blog on 6 December 2017 at https://blogs.thomsonreuters.com/legal-uk/2016/12/06/public-access/

On December 7, Thomson Reuters will host a live webinar, ‘Growing a successful public access practice – strategies and skills for success’. Speakers including Andrew Granville Stafford, Tim Becker, Daniel ShenSmith, Claire Florey and Fraser Wright will help barristers capitalise on the phenomenal opportunities presented by public access. Sign up for the webinar here.

The modern bar faces an ever more competitive environment. Reductions to the scope of legal aid funding, decreased work from traditional sources, and competition from solicitor advocates mean it is more difficult than ever to build a profitable practice.

Yet change remains slow. Dependence on the traditional solicitor referral model and chambers structure has delayed evolution. In response, many barristers are changing the way they work. Public access represents a huge opportunity for the business-savvy barrister to build an enjoyable, varied, and sustainable practice.

Although the client is different, the core work remains the same: advocacy, advice, and drafting

Public access can help individuals and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) access legal services at the point of need in a cost-effective fashion. Anyone can go to a barrister without first engaging a solicitor. And for barristers, although the client is different, the core work remains the same: advocacy, advice, and drafting.

In this changing landscape, it is surprising that more barristers have not embraced public access as a core part of their practice. In 2015, the Bar Council relaunched its Direct Access Portal. But although public access is now a mainstream part of the bar’s offering, it still accounts for a small proportion of revenues.

The April 2016 ‘Research into the public access scheme’ Final Report, commissioned by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and Legal Services Board (LSB), shows that 54 per cent of survey respondents had undertaken between one and five public access cases in the previous 12 months. Only 2 per cent of respondents had undertaken 50 or more cases. And 60 per cent of the respondents claimed that public access accounted for just 1-10 per cent of their fee income.

So how can barristers better capitalise on the opportunities presented by public access, and grow this area as a rewarding source of income?

Marketing

Lack of awareness of the public access scheme remains a key barrier. Many barristers struggle with how to market themselves to the general market. Some clients remain unaware that they can instruct a barrister, and that there are potential cost benefits from doing so. Others are unsure as to the scope of work barristers can undertake. And some are put off by the chambers set-up, designed with the traditional solicitor client in mind. Yet there are now a number of services that can help the barrister looking to grow their public access practice.

Practicalities

The practicalities of running a direct access practice can be overwhelming. While not all work is suitable for barristers, other work is not taken on because of misconceptions about risk assessment, administrative burdens, and perceived effort. Other potential work may fall victim to difficulties around fee structures.

Barristers also have to consider all the core business concepts: how should they manage documents and telephones? Logistics? Outsourcing? Billing? Not all have chambers structures prepared to take care of these matters, and their service models often remain unsuitable for lay clients.

Barristers need systems and strategies to manage the lay client who doesn’t have knowledge of the legal process and systems, nor the demands on the barrister’s time.

Client service

For some barristers, the level of customer service expected by public access clients can prove off-putting. The dispute is everything to clients: their livelihood or their family may be at stake. The client often doesn’t understand how litigation works, or how barristers operate.

Ongoing contact can be time-consuming, extending beyond core aspects of the case, but ranging into unfamiliar territory. Disagreements can occur when the client did not understand what their counsel meant, and the barrister assumed they knew.

Barristers need to be able to obtain clear instructions and documents from the client. They need to be able quickly to build relationships of trust. Barristers need systems and strategies to manage the lay client who doesn’t have knowledge of the legal process and systems, nor the demands on the barrister’s time.

Yet for barristers prepared to navigate these waters, the rewards can be high. Understanding of public access is increasing, and new businesses and revenue streams are emerging alongside it. Likewise, there is more support for the barrister looking to build a practice than ever, with the Bar Council, BSB, intermediaries and a range of networks emerging to help barristers build success for the future.

Thomson Reuters’ live webinar, ‘Growing a successful public access practice – strategies and skills for success’, will provide barristers with practical tips and insight for successful public access practice. Sign up here.