The work carried out by barristers’ clerks is essential to the successful running of a chambers. Ian Spencer, senior clerk at Exchange Chambers in Leeds, explains what it is like working as a modern-day clerk
Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer (LYL): Can you tell us about your career to date?
Ian Spencer: It’s been law all the way for me. My first job, straight from college, was at Sheffield Magistrates Court in an administrative role. I then moved on to my first proper clerking role at Fenners Chambers in Cambridge before returning to Yorkshire in 2001 to join 37 Park Square Chambers. I was invited to join Exchange Chambers as senior clerk when we successfully opened in Leeds in October 2010.
LYL: Why did you join Exchange?
Ian Spencer: It was a great opportunity. We opened in Leeds with just one barrister, Paul Kirtley, but from the very beginning we had a clear vision and strategy. We wanted to expand in Leeds by attracting top-quality work and quality barristers. Having grown quickly in Liverpool and then Manchester, we were determined to replicate that success in Leeds by developing a full-service chambers with strength in depth across the board. With modern premises and strong management, we have been able to develop Leeds without any increase in counsel contributions. Leeds is an integral part of our “Northern Powerhouse” business model.
LYL: What does your role as senior clerk involve?
Ian Spencer: It’s a very varied role, involving client care, business development, marketing, recruitment, finance – and lots more besides. I’m involved in developing the business by working with solicitors, bringing in new work and developing existing relationships. We work with firms all over Yorkshire and beyond – across all legal disciplines.
It’s important for me to have an in-depth knowledge of each member’s practice so I’m able to advise solicitors on their choice of counsel and negotiate fees. I’m also responsible for developing members’ practices, business development, ensuring excellent client service and assisting with the smooth running of a multi-million pound business.
As chambers has expanded in Leeds, we have also invested in our support structure and grown our clerking team. An analysis of the top 30 Chambers (by revenue) indicates that the most profitable sets invest more, particularly in clerks, marketing and other support staff .
In Leeds, we now have a team of four clerks involved in daily liaison with clients, distribution of work, management of counsel’s diaries and fee negotiation. Nationally our members are supported by over 40 staff, headed by chambers director Tom Handley.
There are enormous organisational benefits in having dedicated clerking teams and members who share experience between the team in order to maintain quality of service throughout. This means that even when the fee level is modest, there will be a highly competent member of chambers to undertake the work.
LYL: How have you helped to develop Exchange Chambers’ presence in Leeds since you joined?
Ian Spencer: We’ve worked hard to develop every aspect of the business. Bringing on board quality barristers across a broad spectrum of practice areas and at varying levels of seniority has been the key to our progress so far. Our Leeds Chambers now has over 30 members across all the main practice areas such as crime, personal injury, commercial, insolvency, employment and regulatory. We’ve also branched out into some very specialist areas such as competition law.
LYL: Is it common for barristers to move between chambers? And what can you do to attract them?
Ian Spencer: Barristers don’t move chambers without good reason. At Exchange, it’s all about the support we can provide. Everything is tailored to the individual and their personal aspirations – whether it is developing better quality work, increasing earnings, applying for judicial appointments, or taking Silk. Competitive members’ contributions are also an important factor, as is flexibility with accommodation, such as hot-desking. The full-service nature of chambers attracts quality work, which is appealing for potential new members. Strong financial performance also enables us to invest in the business and the future by funding three pupillages per year at a nationally competitive level.
LYL: What are the challenges facing the Bar at the moment?
Ian Spencer: The cuts to criminal legal aid have been well documented, but it is still possible to make a good living from publicly funded work. Crime, for example, is one of our largest practice areas and our members are instructed on both publicly funded and increasingly on privately paid cases in serious complex fraud cases.
Other challenges include adapting to technology changes to the court system. Courtrooms are becoming increasingly digital, ending the legal system’s outdated reliance on paper. This may be the first step to online courts, all part of a modernization programme and to open up access to the courts – the Bar must be alive to these changes now and adapt.
The rise in court fees has been very concerning, but in an age of austerity there is no prospect of this being reversed, which is a further barrier for ordinary people to access to justice. Because of this we have seen an increase in ADR, which is cost effective for the parties and quicker with disputes resolved in private. We have 32 accredited mediators in chambers so are perfectly placed to offer that service.
Overall however, the regional Bar has a bright future. It is the ultimate lean business model and has unrivalled expertise to offer.
LYL: What are Exchange Chambers’ plans for the future?
Ian Spencer: We are committed to an ongoing expansion programme across the North Eastern and Northern Circuits. Ultimately it is quality that wins cases and clients, but the resources that sheer size can add to that quality help enormously so long as it is that initial quality that always carries the day.
The modern Bar is increasingly alive to business opportunities. Set fee, fixed fee and conditional fee arrangements have been in place for years now, at least in our set. The increase in size and therefore the ability to cover work with barristers who work to a reliable level of quality is part of the reason for expansion. There will always be clients who will pay a premium for their most favoured barrister.
However, there are also those who, while not compromising on competence, have a clear eye as to the cost/benefit of using counsel and want to know exactly what they will get and exactly what it will cost.
Over the last three years, our Leeds Chambers has doubled in size and we have recently taken on 30% more space in order to facilitate future growth. We want to forge ever closer working relationships with solicitors throughout Yorkshire and promote the strength of the Leeds Bar. There is no need for solicitors to instruct London barristers on their big cases – the expertise is here, on their doorstep, in Leeds.
This article first appeared in Leeds & Yorkshire Lawyer