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This article was first published on Lexis®PSL Practice Management on 11 April 2014. Click here for a free trial of Lexis®PSL.
Kate Beaumont interviews Frank Feehan QC, head of chambers at 42 Bedford Row, on the forthcoming merger between 42 Bedford Row and a substantial number of 13 King's Bench Walk.
What circumstances would lead two sets of chambers to consider a merger?
At 42 Bedford Row we reached a consensus last year that in order to maintain excellence both in our own practices and in service to clients we had to expand. To be a set which undertakes work across the civil spectrum we needed to have practice groups which had their own critical mass and be almost “sets within a set”. This helps to give each group responsibility for its own work and its own market presence. Ultimately, it is quality that wins cases and clients, but the resources that sheer size can add to that quality help enormously so long as it is that initial quality that always carries the day. At 42 Bedford Row and at 13 King's Bench Walk both sets felt that we could reach that position together.
What are the challenges of merging sets?
The main challenges are those that are almost imponderable. The Bar is an intensely personal profession and individuality can be either its greatest strength or a terrible time bomb. The first challenge is therefore to ensure that you actually like your potential new colleagues, and that their values are your values. Once that has been established, the more obvious challenges such as the merging of clerking and business operations become relatively easy in that although there are difficult choices to make, we are able to make them together. In purely technical terms, I am sure that the challenges in terms of the merging of practices and business operations are enormously complex and difficult, but the staff of both sets and the hard work of the senior clerk and the commercial manager relieve our barristers of any concerns on that score. Good staff makes everything else easy, and we have great staff.
Does the creation of a new set open up opportunities in terms of fee structures/options?
The modern Bar is increasingly alive to business opportunities. Set fee, fixed fee and conditional fee arrangements have been in place for years now, at least in our set. The increase in size and therefore the ability to “cover” work with barristers who work to a reliable level of quality is part of the reason for expansion. There will always be clients who will pay a premium for their most favoured barrister. However, there are those also who, while not compromising on competence, have a clear eye as to the cost/benefit of using counsel and want to know exactly what they will get and exactly what it will cost.
There are enormous organisational benefits in having dedicated clerking teams, practice groups who take responsibility for their area of work and members who share experience between the team in order to maintain quality of service throughout the call range. This means that even where the fee level is modest, there will be a well-qualified and highly competent member of chambers to undertake the work. Fee arrangements are only any good if, as the customer, you are confident that the service will not suffer even if the costs reduce. Those organisational benefits aim to ensure that the confidence will be there.
What does the merger of two sets mean for instructing solicitors – particularly in relation to the practicalities, service level agreements etc?
In some senses, at least initially, little will change. We have loyal professional clients because they are happy with the service they have been receiving over the many years they have been instructing us. As our client base grows, however, we like every other set have realised that more is expected. Barristers do not have the lay client on the telephone daily asking about their paperwork or seeking reassurance or moral support, but the fact that we are insulated from that should not allow us to forget that our solicitor colleagues in the modern world of email, text and mobile phone are usually under severe client pressure. The discipline and the necessarily more “businesslike” approach that size demands and instills should follow through into reliable and consistent standards and service. We have long had a general minimum set of standards but the organisational benefits that I have already set out will mean that it is much easier to tailor service to the needs of each individual professional client. The solicitor undertaking a divorce case has completely different needs from one undertaking a planning case – dedicated teams will enable us to meet those needs individually and if needs be with clear written terms. Details can be supplied by our clerks.
What happens next – how should lawyers prepare for a merger?
We are about to become one of the largest civil sets in London. There will inevitably be something of a change of culture. The chief preparation to begin with is therefore to engage the sense of humour and dig deep into the store of patience and forbearance. As the initial fuss settles, however, I think we all realise that much is expected of us in terms of professionalism and hard work. It is the adoption of that frame of mind which will be the best preparation for success in the future not just for us but for the Bar in general.
We will be a pretty large business – well into the turnover range of the much-vaunted “SME” that the Government wants to encourage; that means that a businesslike mindset is vital. Many years ago as a very junior barrister in previous chambers I was left behind after a chambers split in which one of the leavers suggested that there had been too much of the “gentleman amateur” in the approach to work. That is an approach which cannot be allowed in the modern provision of legal services and will not subsist in any set of chambers of which I am head. The Bar is rightly regarded as a source of talent and integrity – it must also employ an approach to work which is vigorous, businesslike and constructive if it is to prosper. If you share those values, then you are well prepared for a merger of this sort.
The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.
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