27 November 2008

Practice: A2B Day

I have just returned from the first two sessions of the Bar Council's Access to the Bar Day at Inner Temple. 

The first was on public access and the second on licensed access. I wanted to attend the last session which was "targeted at members of the Bar and the Judiciary" (and the only one to carry CPD points) but it began nearly 4 hours after the end of the previous session. It was bad enough hanging around the conference room that Inner Temple rather grandiosely call "the Parliament Chamber" for more than an hour between the public access and licensed access sessions.  I found those gaps very annoying.   Having set off at an unearthly hour to make the 10:00 session I did not relish a 4 hour drive from Luton through the night after the end of the last session.   And I have work to do just like every other barrister. I am sure that the Bar Council would have attracted a much bigger audience had it staged the second session immediately after the first, and the third immediately after the second.   

The speakers at the public access session were 
  • Paul Darling QC, Chair of the Access to the Bar Committee
  • Tim Dutton QC Chair of the Bar
  • Bridget Prentice MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice 
  • Professor John Flood of Westminster University, and
  • Marc Beaumont, Vice Chair of the Access to the Bar Committee
All gave good speeches except Bridget Prentice MP.   Her effort, which appears on the Ministry of Justice website, was almost entirely irrelevant to public access. It was little more than an overview of the Legal Services Act 2007. Almost the only time she mentioned public or licensed access was in the context that "public access and licensed access are compatible with the wider aims of the Legal Services Act".  Talk about back-handed compliments.   The thrust of her argument was that legal disciplinary practices and alternative business structures should bring down the cost of legal services for the consumer. Regrettably she did not stay long enough for me to ask her how she could reconcile her concern for consumers with her government's massive increase in court fees or its butchery of legal aid.

By far the most interesting presentation was Professor Flood's.  He spoke of a world in which Google could become the world's biggest law firm. The Bar Council had commissioned him to carry out research on public and licensed access. Both schemes appeared to be working reasonably well but he believed that the Bar had to do far more to promote them.   When the time came for questions I asked how the Bar could be expected to do more to promote public access unless it changed its working practices and business model. Flood seemed to agree.   The other members of the panel answered quite a different question - just as witnesses try to do when faced with awkward cross-examination.

Marc Beaumont told a very entertaining tale about how large sums of money were wasted in years of party to party correspondence before counsel's opinion on the merits of the case was sought. All that money could have been saved had the client consulted a barrister in the first place, he suggested.    Marc's tale seemed to strike a chord with several members of the public but he was lambasted by two solicitors in the audience who accused him of disparaging other professions - which I don't think he did.

Anyway, the first speaker in the licensed access session who happened to be an expert witness said very much the same thing.   The other speakers were Desmond Browne QC (the next chair of the Bar) and Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC.   I asked why we still needed to license members of the public to come to the Bar when they could now come to us under the public access scheme.    The only answer that made any sense to me at all was Paul Darling's observation that licensed access provided some pre-qualification.

Though I think this event could have been better organized I am very glad that it was attempted.   It was worth getting up at 05:00 this morning to support it.

4 comments:

John Flood said...

Jane--thank you for your kind comment on my presentation. The full report of my research on direct access to the Bar with Avis Whyte should be available to all on the Bar Council website very soon.

Because of time limits in the meeting I couldn't really say all that I would have liked. I and another colleague at Leeds University are preparing a research project on the Legal Services Act (LSA) changes to the legal profession.

My current thinking is that the LSA will bring about fundamental change to the UK legal profession. When alternative providers such as supermarkets, insurance companies, banks and building societies start supplying legal services, the legal profession (both solicitors and barristers) will face its greatest challenge. The numbers of "freestanding", independent lawyers will shrink dramatically. More lawyers will be employed. Much of what lawyers do will become more standardized and routinized thus adaptable to being outsourced to other countries or to online services. This means in effect that independent lawyers will have to look to see how they can add value to their clients' businesses, not merely react to clients' problems.

As one senior partner of one of the largest law firms said recently, a good graduate from a good law school can provide legal expertise. But what is really needed is lawyers who think with their "right side" brains rather than the left in order to forecast what services their clients need and should need.

Lawyers that are capable of this will succeed in the new legal order. Add to this the demands of the investors in legal services such as banks and private equity firms, and the competition will be stiff.

I will keep you informed of how my research goes. And thank you for your contribution to our research as well.

More will appear from time to time on my own blog Random Academic Thoughts (RATs) and my website at www.johnflood.com.

John

Jane Lambert said...

I agree with much of what yon say but change will take time.

Most of the changes to which you allude were forecast a decade ago by Richard Susskind in "Transforming the Law". Yet they have not yet happened. The interesting question is why not.

Part of the answer may lie in the conservatism of consumers of legal services. Clients are used to the way legal business is done and cannot imagine that it can be done in any other way, let alone improved.

I am not sure that the Legal Services Act 2007 will be the motor of change. That statute changes the regulatory framework for the legal profession but I do not believe that the law as it stood was the barrier to change.

I think the barrier is that it is very difficult to make money out of legal services on an industrial scale on any business model.

John Flood said...

Well, I think one indicator is that among others Susskind is an adviser to a private equity fund that is looking to invest in law firms. Until the recent credit crisis, which I suspect will delay rather than quash, the fund had talked with a number of law firms that were looking for external investment. The good thing about law firms is that they represent good revenue streams (rather like mortgage backed securities used to do--that's a different story). For this to work, law firms will have to change their organizational structures which they are already beginning to do. The first law firm IPO was very successful--Slater & Gordon (a personal injury firm) in Melbourne, Australia--and that will at some point occur here, but until then it indicates the way.

Jane Lambert said...

If it will work in anything it will be in PI. That is because the risks are assessable, the defendants are insured and the lead times between instructions and judgment are short. There is already a lot of commercial involvement in PI through claims handlers. Not so easy in most other areas of law.

There is another model to consider and that is subscription based services like Peninsula. They provide legal advice on employment and health and safety but also many other services such as seminars and publications.

As I said in my comment on your blog, I still think the financial institutions have caught a nasty chill from diversifying from which they will take years to recover.

However, one thing on which we can both agree is that change will come and it should be s good thing both for users and providers of legal services.

Regards

Jane