Barrister Sinead King of 36 Bedford Row talks to Chrissie Lightfoot about the skills required to operate as a barrister in today's fast-moving business environment.
It's time for barristers to de-robe and get with the programme, The Naked Lawyer author Chrissie Lightfoot maintains. But what does barrister Sinead King make of this new world and how is it impacting on her practice?
CL: Is Direct Access a good thing for barristers?
SK: Yes and no. It’s not for every barrister. When dealing with members of the public, people often need to feel heard, and felt, before they feel ready to listen. When you have a solicitor maintaining the relationship, all we need to do as barristers is to collect the relevant facts, and give the relevant legal advice. But when you are dealing with a direct access client, you may have to spend quite some time listening to an account which is extremely emotionally important to your client, but legally irrelevant to their case.
I’d say a number of my profession don’t undertake direct access because they recognise they don’t have the patience to deal with that relationship building aspect of the business. Our core skillset is forensic analysis and presentation. We’re good at rapidly dissecting large amounts of information and drilling down very quickly to the key points. That puts us in a very good position to provide strategic information very cost effectively, and direct access allows us to market to a whole new client base.
For example, I work with Start Ups and SMEs. Often they don’t need a long term retainer, but what they do need is specialist advice at particular intervals of their expansion for a bit of light touch legal project management.
CL: What specifically can barristers do now that they couldn’t before?
SK: We don’t have to wait for a discrete legal issue to turn into a half million pound case before getting involved. For example, I increasingly find myself advising on what the terms of a contract mean for someone planning to expand their business: how much can they safely do under the contract and when do they have to renegotiate? What are the likely costs of getting that judgment wrong?
Nor do we have to wait for a solicitor to pick up the phone. At the moment, I and a more junior colleague are working together to represent an SME in the Mercantile Court in a large six figure case. Working as a team with the client, we can provide advisory services which allow the client to conduct its own litigation, whilst we can step in with settling statements, checking evidence, and drafting responses to the other side, as well as the usual representation in the hearing. The costs of employing a solicitor would be prohibitive for the client, but this way it’s got the specialist advice and presentation services it needs, without paying for those it doesn’t.
CL: What can’t they do, still?
SK: Some barristers undertake training which allows them to conduct litigation in exactly the same way as a solicitor, but I was always attracted to the fixing and problem-solving side of the profession, so I haven’t. So I can’t handle my client’s affairs or money, file documents at court, or instruct expert witnesses on my client’s behalf – but I can provide the advice that enables my clients to do so, and once I’ve given them the relevant information I find they’re usually pretty good at cracking on with doing the leg work themselves.
CL: What changes do you feel need to be made to improve the situation for barristers and the client?
SK: Knowledge: often members of the public don’t understand how the law operates until something goes badly wrong. But used properly, law can be a safety net, a sword or a shield: a bit of timely advice can often mean that law can be something useful rather than something a client can only react against.
Conversely, the public don’t necessarily understand the limits of a court outcome. Courts are concerned about what can be proved according to fixed evidential standards and what is legally relevant: and those standards don’t always correlate with the truth or the delivery of a fair outcome. Often, the solutions parties can carve out for themselves through negotiation are far better, and fairer. So being prepared to enter the process with a willingness to negotiate can go a long way to managing the process with realistic expectations.
CL: Does this mean the role and skill-set of the barrister will/has change(d)?
SK: There will always be a place for a traditional no-nonsense barrister – because the judiciary take most of their stock from that world, and if you can’t speak the language - and speak it not only fluently but also robustly - you’re unlikely to benefit your client when matters reach court.
We are a very old profession: we still wear 18th century wigs and gowns, which doesn’t exactly convey a sense of 21st century relevance. But strip off the costume and at heart, a barrister is and has always been a legal expert, consultant, risk assessor, negotiator and courtroom fighter. That role hasn’t changed – and if anything is even more relevant these days.
CL: How do you see the role of the barrister changing in months and years to come?
SK: I think we need to be more behaviourly multi-lingual. If we’re going to work with non-lawyers we need to learn to be both more soft-edged and business orientated in our dealings. Otherwise, we will be unable to build the relationships necessary to understand our clients, their motivations, or unlock the facts necessary to advise them properly – or win their cases.
CL: What should they be doing now?
SK: I think we need to continue to get the message out there about the options available for clients. At even the most basic level, consumers, if they know what barristers are at all, tend to assume that they have to go through a solicitor, and we will be hugely expensive. Actually, because we tend to charge fixed rates for particular pieces of work, rather than an hourly rate, we’re often very cost effective.
CL: What kind of core skills should they focus on for the future?
SK: We still need the same core skills of analysis and presentation: that can’t and shouldn’t change. We are legal experts – we have the knowledge, the analytic tools and the day to day experience of taking things to trial and winning, and we shouldn’t be diluting these skills. But what we do need to do is ensure that we can use them in the most effective way for the benefit of our clients, and that means not simply assuming that clients will know what we do and come to us.
CL: Are barristers good at finding their own clients i.e. marketing and selling themselves to potential clients?
SK: Marketing as a business, and using the kind of tools of a 21st century business is still something of a novelty. We’re beginning to move in the right direction but it’s fair to say it’s been a slow start.
CL: What about you. How do you do it?
SK: My role is as an entrepreneurial adviser, advocate and defender. Because I work with Start Ups and SMEs, it’s important that they can see me, understand what I do, and be confident that I talk the same language. I’m pretty active in social media, particularly twitter, as it’s an easy and very effective way of keeping in the loop with my target market.
CL: Is Direct Access a good thing for the public / businesses?
It’s a great thing. We offer a unique mix of cost effective practicality and expertise. A direct access barrister can take the case to trial, acting alone, with other barristers, or with paralegal support. The reason you might want to have a solicitor involved is where the case is particularly paper heavy, the value of the claim is high, and you could use a solicitor’s firm to field offers and keep project management on track.
CL: What sets the SocialHuman Barrister apart from the traditional lawyer?
SK: I tend to work at the intersection of commercial, IP and employment law, and, quite apart from the ability to bounce between legal fields, my work often requires the ability to understand a situation in both legal and human terms. The ability to look at a problem in several different dimensions – human, abstract, procedural, evidential – and to be able to switch gears is pretty important. I think clients tend to respond to the fact they know that I understand them, and their case, and I’ve got their back. Granville Barker once referred to “intellectual passion, that most un-English of virtues, ” which has always stuck: I’m curious and fascinated by ideas, designs and inventions, so working with my clients, who are often fearless creators, always feels like a privilege, and I think my enthusiasm and desire to protect them translates pretty well.
CL: Intellectual passion, that most un-English of virtues. So, there it is. As in law law land, so in barrister land. It’s time to ‘get naked’. If you don’t learn to be more soft-edged, enthusiastic, business orientated, behaviourly multi-lingual, understand a situation in both legal and human terms i.e. use all of your tools efficiently, switch gears and have the patience to deal with the relationship building aspect of the business and ROAR, you’re probably not going to make it as a SocialHuman barrister competing against the machines or your fellow humans, currently, or in the future. There is one saving grace. If you dare to strip off your 18th century barrister robe and ‘get naked’, your role as a legal expert and courtroom fighter may just remain relevant, at least for now...
Chrissie Lightfoot is author of Tomorrow’s Naked Lawyer: NewTech, NewHuman, NewLaw – How to be successful 2015 to 2045. (published Nov 2014 ), and its prequel bestseller The Naked Lawyer: RIP to XXX – How to Market, Brand and Sell You! (Nov 2010). You can pick up her latest book today by emailing email@example.com or call +44(0) 207 566 5792.