The Bar – Time for a Culture Shock?

The Pupillage Blog Welcomes Jeremy Hopkins

I am really pleased to welcome Jeremy Hopkins as he pens a ‘Guest Posting’ entitled ‘The Bar – Time for a Culture Shock?‘ upon The Pupillage Blog.  Jeremy has been a barristers’ clerk since 1989 and he is also the author of the successful blog ‘Clerkingwell – Observations from a barristers’ clerk‘.

The Bar – Time for a Culture Shock? – By Jeremy Hopkins

I have for some time been considering writing about my thoughts on practice at the Bar, from my perspective as a barristers’ clerk, as a guide for new or aspiring barristers.  This process has, perhaps surprisingly, been hampered by considerable hesitation.  I have found myself thinking along the lines of: “Me, a non-legally-qualified clerk ? Telling the guv’nors what to do ?  Qualified barristers, the cream of the legal profession…?” and so on, wondering whether it is my place at all to give advice to such highly intelligent individuals.

This is all, of course, complete and utter nonsense, yet I am far from alone among my peers in such musings.  It must say something significant about the culture at the Bar that such doubts are troubling those who have for years occupied the “coal face” of service delivery in the profession and whose role involves close and constant contact with all sections of the marketplace.

The thrust of this introduction therefore is that in order to think about how best to progress in the future, following the approaches and attitudes of the past really is not the best start.  Perhaps it is time to realise that the culture at the Bar is restricting its progress at a time when it badly needs unfettered ability to adapt to the increasing demands of the market.  As ever, prevention is easier than cure, which is why understanding these issues at the start of a career can prove invaluable in unlocking the potential for a successful practice.

The good news is that none of this requires any kind of revolution or rebellion against the established order.  It doesn’t need anyone to stand up and shout “no !” to the establishment at a time of their career when they are, quite justifiably, keen to conform to the accepted order of the profession to which they have worked so hard to gain entry.

It is simply a question of adopting a mindset that is free from the assumptions of the past, thus liberating them to go about the business of providing a service based on what the market wants to receive, as opposed to what the provider wants to give. In reality the two are not that far apart, but the gap between them is becoming more and more exposed in an increasingly customer-led environment.

The starting point for redressing this comes with the recognition that the Bar is fundamentally a service industry and while reliant upon high levels of professional expertise, has much in common with many other lines of business that we all deal with in everyday life.

Why should it be that so many barristers find it hard to see things from a client’s perspective by drawing a parallel with their own experiences of, say, having their car serviced ?  Most likely, they would not be able or inclined to service their own car, so would need to entrust the job to someone with expertise that they don’t have themselves. I suspect they would want to know when the job would be completed and that it would be finished on time, as promised.  They would want to be confident that the work was being carried out by someone suitably qualified.  They would want to know how much it was going to cost and the basis on which the price was calculated.  You can be sure they would demand a good explanation for running late or going over-budget.  Ultimately, they would expect their car to be running smoothly and to have any follow up queries dealt with promptly and without charge.

This is a simplistic comparison, I know.  Yet for many years I have seen evidence in practice of an instinctive expectation by barristers that clients will accept, without challenge, situations that would be completely unacceptable to them if roles were reversed.  To make matters worse, they know full well that the vast majority of these clients are themselves lawyers, which makes these expectations even more unrealistic and, when you think about it, completely irrational.

But these are not the type of people who you would generally describe as irrational, yet here they are clearly displaying an irrational mindset.  Difficult to change, perhaps, when it is a deeply-rooted legacy of generations of flawed culture.  But not at all difficult to avoid in the first place for those to whom it is visible and recognisable as a dangerous obstacle.

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