Workforce: Aiming to Be the Best Bar None; James O'Brien Reports on How a Birmingham Barristers' Practice Is Looking to Modern Business Methods to Improve Its Performance

Article excerpt

Byline: James O'Brien

Barristers in a Birmingham practice have brought in a business structure to take advantage of recent relaxations to their traditional working rules.

Members of Number 6 Chambers in Fountain Court, Steelhouse Lane, are cutting the restrictive red tape binding their internal administrative activities.

Head of chambers Roger Smith QC is gradually pushing the chambers towards even newer ground with a sponsorship deal.

'We are seriously looking at sponsorship,' he said.

'No decisions have been taken but we are looking at some appropriate options which may be within or outside our usual legal field. 'We did think about sponsoring a hockey tournament, but we are still new at this sort of thing.'

But to a profession with a long history of tradition, thinking the unthinkable is likely to become a familiar process in an environment which now permits a restrained style of advertising.

I was given a business card by Denis Desmond, head of the criminal law team.

Nothing unusual about that except until recently such a simple act was frowned upon. It was seen as personal advertising.

Such arcane rules are now on the way out but what was it like before the Lord Chancellor's office said they could be dismantled?

Number 6 Chambers held about three meetings a year at which senior members would discuss its activities.

Those occasions were invariably on an informal basis but now there is a barristers' management committee in place looking at business plans.

The committee holds monthly meetings to examine new ways to streamline the chamber's administration and take full advantage of the Lord Chancellor's reforms.

A team of management consultants was brought into chambers to look at the way it operated.

The consultants dusted away the cobwebs which had tenuously held together some of the long standing traditions which had become hurdles to progress and modernisation for the chamber and its 32 barristers.

Now, in addition to the business plan there is marketing, computerisation, mail shots and a business-like approach to the financial aspects of the chamber's operations, even lecture tours.

A position of credit controller has been created to ensure that fee notes are handled as part of an integrated and organised structure.

The credit controller replaces the oddity of barristers being paid for work when the solicitor was ready which was, in some cases, so late that the case could hardly be remembered.

Other modern management practices include staff appraisals.

Bryce Somerville, head of the family law team in Number 6, who has taken his team's work to groups of solicitors and given them presentations about the changes in family law as part of a mini-lecture programme, is keen to help the modernisation along.

'Even the family law group was a product of the management consultants' input when theywere trying to gather what we wanted from our business structure.

'In Number 6 there are different types of legal practices but the consultants' suggestion about lecture tours was part and parcel of what we should be doing.

'As barristers we are individual practitioners both legally and in terms of marketing but we group together where it is necessary to be more efficient and to market our chambers.

'We are running ourselves like a modern business should and with a management committee - a board of directors.'

'Previously there was a pupilage committee which would interview possible candidates for positions in chambers but this is now called an admissions committee.

'Here again its structure is streamlined and it holds regular meetings,' said Bryce.

A business company has been set up called Six Fountain Court Services (Ltd) to provide a formal legal structure for the business. …