A brave new Bar—challenges for the new decade

A brave new Bar—challenges for the new decade

With the beginning of the new decade comes new predictions for what the future may hold. For the legal profession in particular there is an air of uncertainty. With Brexit on the horizon, a growing culture of doing more for less and the implementation of SRA changes in late 2019, it’s no wonder that the comfortable stability the profession has often known has been shaken.

For the Bar in particular the outlook for the future would seem bleak, with the number of cases reaching Court declining, Legal Aid cuts, rising rents and falling fees.

However, LexisNexis A Brave New Bar painted a contrasting more optimistic picture for the future of the profession. Those surveyed reported that their own practice is either stable or growing compared to three years ago—with 67% of those surveyed expecting practices to grow or remain stable over the next three years.

Though individual’s feel their practices will grow, their outlook for the future of the Bar as a whole was entirely different, with a strong twang of pessimism. This was particularly prevalent around issues such as:

  • wellbeing
  • increasing regulations and admin around Data Protection (GDPR), Money Laundering and HMRC’s ‘Making Tax Digital’ resulting in less time for barristers to spend on their cases and clients
  • cuts to Legal aid and the move to fixed costs
  • little time for perceived ‘luxuries’ like business development or marketing

Challenges to the progression of the Bar

Wellbeing

A topic that appears frequently in the legal profession, as highlighted in the previous Bellwether report: Stress in the Legal Profession, more than 60% of legal professionals were experiencing high levels of stress on a day to day basis, and that ring true also for the Bar.

With physical and emotional drains, such as long and unsociable hours, constant travelling and the burden of responsibility, it is no wonder 1 in 5 barristers rated ‘managing wellbeing and resilience’ as their number one most critical challenge.

With hours extending, fees decreasing, regulation causing the volume of admin to grow more cumbersome and higher client demand, it can be expected that wellbeing will be a primary focus for the Bar and the wider legal profession in 2020.

Rising costs and falling fees

2020 once again provides the challenge for barristers of all levels and practices to do more with less. With just under half (40%) of respondents voting rising costs as one of their top three challenges.

Coupled with rising costs comes falling fees. For those doing Criminal and Family publicly funded work, the cuts and changes to Legal Aid are of a high concern—with some fearing the Criminal Bar may be wiped out entirely.

Those doing privately funded work are also being effected, as the move towards fixed costs is also forcing fees down. With the often-dreaded wait (months, or even years) to be paid, the pressure only becomes more intense.

Increasing regulation

GDPR and Money Laundering regulations dominated the headlines in 2020, with the likes of big names such as Marriott and British Airways both receiving extremely large potential fines of up to £184m.

However, it’s not just the monetary fines that are causing stress. The growing regulation has put pressure upon the already restricted time of Barristers today. With extra time being spent on keeping up with the latest changes and dealing with the extra admin and paperwork, there’s less time to focus on clients.

Where can the Bar find growth?

Despite these prevalent challenges, barristers remain optimistic about growth within the profession with two thirds of barristers planning to remain stable or grow in the coming years—where this growth will come from though is hard to determine, as 46% say they don’t have the support they need to grow, and the areas of which to grow in seem just as uncertain (29% said they weren’t sure what would be a better route to sustainable business).

So, where could growth come from?

Diversification

Diversifying is not someone one would traditionally consider in the Bar, with the wisdom usually being it is better for barristers to specialise than branch out—and 62% of the sample reflects that, working in only one practice area, especially Criminal and Family barristers.

However, of those who said they would like to diversify, 46% say they don’t have the support they need to do it – whether it’s:

This result is interesting, the lack of skills in marketing and collaboration appear to be trending throughout the entire legal profession. See: Digital marketing for law firms – What’s the hype? And Teamwork makes the legal dream work.

Technology

Tech is no longer something you can hide from, and it looks like barristers don’t want to.

It’s often the perception that the legal profession is ‘reluctant’ to embrace digital progression, however, 97% of those surveyed believe technology will help aid growth of their roles in practice. With 84% preferring to conduct their legal research online than in print.

As noted in the report:

“One has to understand and use developments in technology in order to survive in almost any profession these days, and the bar is no exception.”

 

Though the challenges may be difficult and we cannot predict the future, the Brave New Bar report sheds light on the pockets of optimism and areas for growth within the Bar.

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About the author:

Hannah is one of the Future of Law blog’s digital and technical editors. She graduated from Northumbria University with a degree in History and Politics and previously freelanced for News UK, before working as a senior news editor for LexisNexis.