Barristers may form new joint firms with solicitors following a recent move by the Bar Standards Board (BSB).
The BSB governs barristers in England and Wales. It has now been applied to be recognised as an ‘entity regulator’, which would allow it to certify new forms of legal firm. The Board hopes it might receive such authority as soon as September.
The legal academic Baroness Deech, currently making waves with her private member’s bill on divorce finance, believes entity regulation would allow barristers to come up with “new and innovative ways of providing legal services”, and that such a development would be “good news for the public.”
There is an appetite for business innovation amongst many barristers, who have seen their incomes fall in the wake of last year’s legal aid cuts.
The Board staged a number of focus groups with barristers, Legal Futures reports, to discuss the types of innovation organisations they might be interested in forming to response the current difficulties faced by many in the profession. Ideas included a collective ownership of barristers chambers, direct access to corporate clients (ie rather than via a solicitor) and perhaps most interestingly for the world at large, joint barrister-solicitor firms.
The division between barristers and solicitors is one of the most distinctive features of the English and Welsh law. In some ways it is not surprising that the two are sometimes confused by members of the public: we are, as legal blogger John Bolch noted here, two sides of the same coin. But while solicitors are focused on the minutiae of day-to-day, client-facing legal work, our equally skilled colleagues devote themselves to the slightly more theatrical side of the profession: advocacy in court. Barristers are the ones who stand up before a judge and sometimes a jury to make the client’s case there and then in court.
Traditionally barristers do not work directly with clients but are hired by solicitors on their behalf. The respective roles of solicitors and barristers are sharply demarcated and there is a separate system of training and qualification for both.
But this division is not universally made. In the US, for example, an ‘attorney’ fulfils the functions of both a barrister and a solicitor, and in New Zealand, ‘lawyers’ do the same. Other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand’s neighbour Australia, operate a halfway house model, in which solicitors can operate as barristers as well, but law students can choose to qualify as barristers only if they wish.
Back home, opinion is split on the possibility of a fused legal system, in which the traditional distinctions between solicitor and barrister would be removed. Some fear the loss of expertise and finely honed specialist skills, while others point to simplification and a reduction in costs as possible advantages.
Whether this will ever actually happen I cannot say – perhaps not in my professional lifetime. But in the meantime, I am completely in favour of more firms in which barristers and solicitors work together as colleagues. It can only be for the good and the public would benefit from the resulting legal synchrony I am sure.
You may not know this, but as a child, my ambition was to be…a barrister! But after spending time with a particular set, I decided it was too theatrical, there was no opportunity to delegate and grow and it wouldn’t be child friendly to boot. I wasn’t wrong.