From my latest Solicitors Journal column “Family Business”, 13/11/2011.
Direct access is pitting solicitors and barristers against each other when instead we should be working together, says Marilyn Stowe
When I decided to become a solicitor and not a barrister, my decision was based on a number of reasons – but not least that I wanted contact with real clients on a daily basis.
Also, as a student I worked for both solicitors and barristers and I didn’t like the more theatrical antics of the Bar. So, while it wasn’t for me, many of my friends did go on to become barristers and now play an active role in the spectacle of court hearings.
Three decades on I value the opinions of some as it is good to get a different perspective and discuss difficult points. It’s also good to hand over a case to an advocate whose job it is to represent my client in court. I have no problem sharing the risk and instructing counsel to do the job they are trained to do, while other solicitors prefer to keep the advocacy for themselves.
Recently the Bar Standards Board announced it is considering making it easier for members of the public to instruct barristers directly. The move follows the BSB’s decision earlier this year to remove the prohibition on barristers conducting litigation work, and will inevitably bring them into closer competition with solicitors.
It doesn’t make much sense to me. Solicitors have clear skills that barristers lack, and vice versa. Limited experience of dealing with clients directly, on a day-to-day basis, puts barristers at an immediate disadvantage in an increasingly specialised industry that is focused on client care and delivering consistent, cost effective results.
Increased specialisation has meant law firms can only compete by investing in their teams. Solicitors, trainees and assistants are now joined by admin and human resources teams, client care executives, researchers, IT specialists and marketers. In contrast, the Bar, with its one-man barrister brand with no ability to delegate and every case a nightly challenge, faces an uphill struggle to compete on the same terms. Barristers simply aren’t equipped in their Dickensian set up to deal with the needs of clients in the 21st century – day in, day out.
Room for everyone
So what would my solution be? To me it’s blindingly obvious. Increasingly, we have a New York-style operation in my firm, with a barrister and a German Rechtsanwalt who are both qualified solicitors. And we have another barrister who has recently joined as a trainee solicitor. We have a team of forensic accountants who were initially an ‘experiment’ but now fit perfectly into our structure. We all work together, complementing one another on a daily basis. In due course we will also set up a dedicated advocacy unit comprising more barristers all working under the same umbrella. It’s an exciting concept and one that I am confident clients will appreciate.
We each bring specialist knowledge and experience to the firm. It provides barristers with a wider context in which to practise and allows clients to benefit through increased choice and a greater pool of expertise at the earliest stages of their case – two of the BSB’s stated aims in relaxing the rules. In an amalgamated law firm, there is room for everyone.
I believe it would make more sense, for the consumer and us all, if we fused our profession under one name and worked together, rather than competed to do jobs that neither profession is fully equipped or trained to complete.
The great divide
There is no doubt that inequalities still persist in the legal profession because of the distinction between solicitors and barristers: one recent report highlighted the sad truth that, in the past ten years, not one solicitor has been appointed to the High Court.
This is clearly a fact that should lead to some soul searching within the highest echelons of the legal community, and I believe that increasing competition between the Bar and solicitors does nothing to resolve the fundamental inequalities faced within the profession. Indeed, to my mind it is these inequalities that prevent the justice system from being fairer and more representative – two aims that should surely be at the forefront of our minds as we wait to see what 2012 holds in store.
Despite these weighty issues, I do hope you all enjoy a relaxing and happy Christmas – and offer my best wishes for a prosperous and healthy New Year!