We always caution ourselves against stereotyping, but sometimes we just cannot help ourselves. The first time I ventured into London as a tyro lawyer to consult with the barrister my firm had instructed for a tricky commercial litigation, I was delighted to find my prejudices confirmed. A threadbare carpet, an uncomfortable chesterfield, a slight accent of damp, scuffed shoes, mad professorial hair, no eye contact, tea from a cracked cup, Spy cartoons, but the sharpest mind and a passion for the law.
Some 25 years on I am sure it may still be possible to find potential residents for homes for the gently bewildered, but for me, now, the bar is one of the most exciting treasure troves of legal excellence anywhere in the world, and treasure that is reasonably priced as well.
Over the last several years I have made my living, in part, from helping in-house legal teams set up their panels of law firms – shaping the scope of their work, the performance indicators, the value add, the fee deals and so on. It is enormously heartening to see how so many law firms can manage large volumes of work with skill, some flare and a commitment to their clients; however, a law firm solution isn’t always the right solution.
Going direct to the bar is an option, and for the right type of work it will be a very elegant way to access insight, wisdom and strategy. Interesting then to note new research, Direct access to barristers: a survey of market views and needs, commissioned by the barristers’ chambers Hardwicke and undertaken by the legal research company Jures. According to the findings, almost one-third of a poll of senor in-house counsel and company secretaries had instructed a barrister directly in the last two years (32%), doubling the number in a 2008 study (15%) which, in turn, doubled the figures recorded in 2006 (6%).
It takes effort, some trial and error and is a proper investment of time to research, meet and properly discuss; but thoughtfully done, going to the bar direct will be a rich source of expertise and reassurance.
One of the joys is to reconnect with people who have a genuine passion for a legal discipline and who tend to think without the clutter of a marketing/sales/targets veneer. To work with experts who will add to a process and not take it over; who are content to be engaged for a specific task and who will not see every contact as a chance to ‘cross-sell’. Frankly, a joy as well to work with people who impress with their intellect and not with the scale of their glass fronted city cathedrals.
One of the very best reasons however for returning to this underused resource is that it represents some of the best value for money legal support you can buy anywhere in the world. The Hardiwcke/Jures survey suggests barristers were perceived by a slim majority (55%) to be offering better value for money.
What is required as well, of course, is a thoughtful client. A client that is intellectually engaged in the issues, a client that can filter the noise and a client that can help define the risks and contribute to the debate. Too often I think we use law firms in a slightly tired and uninterested way; we almost hand over the matter to observe it rather than to participate in it. Using the bar direct reconnects us in a much more visceral way and we are often better for that experience ourselves.
It is not a panacea and it will probably always be a minority pursuit, but for many it will be a stimulating, creative, non-bureaucratic, low-maintenance and cost-effective solution to some of the legal issues we face in our ever more complex worlds.
Paul Gilbert is chief executive of LBC Wise Counsel and a former head of legal services at Cheltenham & Gloucester