Don’t leave your career to chance

Take control of your practice and create that competitive edge: how to position your specialist skills in the market


When barristers have so much of their time invested in assisting clients, decisions about career direction and work life balance can often get relegated to the ‘to do list’ – or more worryingly to the ‘too difficult to do list’. To a greater or lesser extent, I suspect we are all guilty of this.

This article aims to illustrate why it is important to take control of your practice and how to do it. The key stakeholders in the process are you, your practice managers or clerks, your chambers, and your family; they all have a vested interest in your success and happiness and can help you achieve your aims.

Why have a strategy?

It is an exciting time to be in chambers. The legal market is increasingly dynamic, with vast changes in the way services are being supplied to clients. New entrants, technology, a congested legal market, and client power are just some of the pressures that make the legal market the most competitive it has ever been. Whilst a competitive market carries threats, it also offers opportunities to those who position themselves to take advantage. As barristers, our high-quality, cost-effective specialist legal resource is what clients are demanding. To ensure success, it is about how you position your specialist skills in the market to create that competitive advantage.

Competitive environments, whatever sector you are in, drive increased specialisation and that is what we are seeing in the legal market. It is becoming increasingly difficult for barristers to hold themselves out as specialists across a diverse range of areas of law. Advocacy remains a core skill, but you need to stand out amongst a sea of talent. Clients are looking for specialists and demanding evidence of this. Broadly speaking, for the vast majority of barristers this means you risk credibility if you cling onto a range of areas and profess to specialise in all of them.

"Advocacy remains a core skill, but you need to stand out amongst a sea of talent."

Identifying your key areas (it doesn’t have to be just one area of law, especially where there is a natural link) and positioning yourself as a specialist is therefore vital in a market where visibility is increasingly difficult. On a practical level, choose an area that you enjoy and are passionate about; you are much more likely to invest time developing your practice in this area. Don’t allow yourself to drift in the hope that the market will notice you. This is an unnecessary risk that you can easily avoid.

If you have invested time in a strategy to specialise and you decide for whatever reason to have a career break, your ability to stay in touch with specialist contacts will only serve to aid transition back into practice. Several other areas of support are needed, of course, but having a specialist profile before a career break is a significant advantage.

How do you go about it?

To work out where you want to be and how to get there, you need to stand back and look at the bigger picture. This requires a process of analysis, planning and implementation. Focus on:

  • where you are in your career;
  • what you are good at and not good at;
  • understanding the culture of your organisation;
  • how your managers can support you;
  • what the future looks like;
  • choices about what to do/what not to do; and
  • implementing and turning the plans into reality.

This will help you get a better feel for what you want and, more importantly, what is achievable.

When to ask for help

If it seems a daunting task, use the professional skills around you in chambers. Your clerks and practice managers have vast experience and will understand how best to support you. They have seen success and failure so use their knowledge to avoid making the same mistakes as others. Be honest with them about your aims and they will help guide you.

In my experience, structured practice management meetings are the best way to build individual strategies. Barristers are evidence-based in their thinking, so meetings where you have detailed discussions with facts and figures are likely to be productive. Aspirations without supporting evidence are fine, so long as you devise a plan to achieve them, whilst at the same time managing your expectations. It may take longer than you would like, or you may need to compromise because of market forces or other barriers. None of that matters; the key is that you are planning to achieve, and, in most cases, this will deliver some success.

Your professional managers will also need time away from the daily pressures of clerking to plan, reflect and implement on your behalf. A common mistake made by most chambers is not to support a structure that facilitates this. I would urge anyone reading this article to create a chambers structure that sees this as an important element of talent management.

Circumventing internal barriers

External pressures are vast and could form the basis of an entire article. In essence, if you plan to succeed there will plenty of opportunities. Here we look at potential internal barriers in chambers, where you have some measure of control. These are your structure, your culture and your brand.

Your structure is framed by your culture. Understandably, most chambers have been structured to support the culture of sole practitioners. Therefore the key challenge for strategic development at an individual and chambers level is the self-employed mindset of the barristers and an individualistic approach. Inevitably, self-interest for sole practitioners is difficult to suppress when making decisions that concern them, but the strategy of chambers and the strategy of individual members needs to be aligned. When it is not aligned there will be tension and individuals will feel isolated. This is the sort of barrier that you need to identify and, if necessary, devise a personal strategy to overcome.

Linked closely to your structure is your chambers culture, and it is this culture that drives the behaviour needed to achieve aims and objectives. With the right culture, where everyone involved understands the direction of chambers and shares the same values, strategic ambitions and vision, this can provide for a dynamic and cohesive business with most members involved in driving strategy that they believe in.

The wrong culture

However, with the wrong chambers culture where individuals put themselves before the organisation and regard their interests as primary, this creates a danger that the organisation takes a back seat and eventually suffers. Again, this is the sort of barrier that you need to identify. Are you in a chambers that has a supportive culture, where your values and strategic aims are shared by others? If you are, the aligned values and vision are more likely to attract a collaborative environment which will be supportive to your individual strategy.

Whether individual members like it or not we are viewed in the minds of our clients as a chambers brand. This means that the actions of colleagues in chambers, whether positive or negative, could impact on the status and credibility of the brand. Unless members are thinking collaboratively about the impact of behaviour on the reputation of a brand, this could present a barrier to you in achieving your aims or objectives.

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that planning your personal strategy in a fast-changing environment has its challenges. However, you do not have to make the process excessively complex; it is about reflection, analysis, decision-making and action. Work out who you are and what you want to be, and measure this against your capabilities and skills. Work in collaboration with your professional managers and make sure you have the support of your family. Look for any structural or cultural barriers that exist in your chambers and try to devise a strategy to address them. Finally, look ahead to see what is coming and assess how it will shape the future legal environment, as well as your own competitive position within that environment. If you do this, you should be able to identify a vision statement of aims and a strategic plan of actions over a set time period to achieve them. Move this from the ‘to do list’ and action, and you will feel in more control of your future.

Nicholas Luckman MBA is the Practice Director at Wilberforce Chambers. He has held senior management positions for over 20 years and is a contributor to The Independent Bar: Insights into a Unique Business Model (Globe Law and Business, 2018, ISBN 9781787422520).

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Nicholas Luckman

Nicholas Luckman MBA is the Practice Director at Wilberforce Chambers. He has held senior management positions for over 20 years and is a contributor to The Independent Bar: Insights into a Unique Business Model (Globe Law and Business, 2018, ISBN 9781787422520).