The legal aid cuts are a tragedy for justice – but the idea that there is no future in/for the criminal bar is simply not true. We think that you can plan for profits and growth with some optimism – if you foster the right conditions.

All who come to the bar want to make a difference – mostly driven by a sense of duty rather than entitlement. All do much more – for less, with real-world consequences for them and their families.

Recurrent and systemic funding cuts have already led to significant reductions in individual earnings and Chambers’ “profits”, impacting on the ability to invest in the future. The profession is rightly proud of modern pupillages – rather than stifling competition it has sought to create and nurture it. Limitations on this will damage diversity – both to the profession and society in years to come. Whether or not the government intends to exact this price, the ‘public purse’ from which many are paid, whether prosecuting or defending, continues to shrink.

No single Chambers can change the system or stop the cuts: we understand the recent actions taken by our profession, often at considerable cost to ourselves. However, this is only part of the answer. Creating Drystone Chambers was driven partly by a belief that a Chambers does have some power to make a positive difference by mitigating some of the pernicious effects on its members and beyond, but one has to create and sustain the necessary conditions – particularly in leadership, structure and delivery.

How to secure profits and growth?

Many will understand instinctively the economists’ Laffer curve – encompassing a point at which it is not productive to work further, bearing in mind the tax burden on receipts, and a point at which it is not worth working at all.

For the most junior end of the bar, the present cuts have made entry into the profession unattractive, if not impossible. Likewise some aspirant paralegals and junior solicitors are poorly paid considering the nature of the work and the hours required: as an essential part of the system, they should be properly rewarded.

The economists’ mantra is well known: cut costs; improve efficiencies; invest, and use technology. We knew that merging our two sets would bring improved IT and economies of scale; we carefully managed our expenditure. We are now able to cut required contributions and increase individual disposable income. In stark economic terms, we plan for a profitable future – but of itself this is insufficient.

Chambers’ Professional and Social Capital

To focus purely on the potentially economic consequences of a merger ignores the need for cohesion and the development of Chambers’ ‘professional and social capital’.

We regarded Chambers as a professional ‘vehicle’ through which to provide strength and support to its members and those it serves. It needs a shared ethos – divided it fails. Having found that we shared these values, three aims informed our joint approach to decision-making:

i.    Continuing the best of a Chambers system; 

ii.    Adopting a progressive contribution system to give affordable 
opportunities to the most junior; 

iii.    Excising ‘excess’. 

The first two aims might appear obvious, but what is the “best of a Chambers’ system”? It should surely promote and encourage an atmosphere of close and interwoven professional relationships that allow the most junior to approach the most senior for advice (free) and help (always given) – this is in the interests of all concerned and even more importantly, in the public interest: part of the vast uncosted, often undervalued yet immense benefit and resource that the best of a Chambers system provides.

Curiously, it is the last aim of our triad, “excising excess”, that could have proved the most contentious since “excess” can often be projected as a measure of Chambers’ success. Whether pronouncing the apparent size of a case or the grandeur of an event – both may be wholly disconnected from, and in disproportion to, the fees payable for a barrister’s work and the circumstances in which it is done. Debunking this erroneous “measure” requires collective courage and a recalibration of expectations.

Having placed a high value upon the ethos and professional/social capital of our merged Chambers we applied a strong budgetary rigour whilst ensuring that our premises will provide a high quality working and social environment for tenants and staff alike, with all agreeing to share new working spaces to speed the integration of friendships and professional practises.

We do not pretend to be in a legal Utopia but hope that we have realistically refocused our individual and collective sights: not in simple acquiescence to the harsh political landscape, but to try and ensure that should there be an end to the present struggles there will be a cadre of solvent, highly-motivated, high-quality, independent barristers upon whom the public can depend. Together we are stronger.

John McNally is a barrister at Drystone Chambers