Reinforcing its position

Marketing can mean far more than client relationships — as dramatic developments at the London Bar are now showing. Luke Parsons QC, Head of Quadrant Chambers, talks to Neasa MacErlean, along with Sarah Longden, Business Development Director, and Peter Blair, Chief Operating Officer.

A subject of fascination around the English-speaking world, British barristers are now facing the forces of change. One set of London barristers unexpectedly collapsed in late 2015 — and others are rapidly merging and consolidating.

So how does a set with independent ambitions work to secure its present and future? Quadrant looked into its crystal ball eight years ago, when it was primarily known as a shipping-specialist set, and brought in consultants. Various changes came out of that — including the appointment of a chief operating officer and a tougher financial management system. And now, in 2017, there is a much stronger focus on marketing. Marketing has always been a challenge at the Bar since barristers are all, essentially, sole practitioners even if they club together to run the sets of chambers they work from.

Luke Parsons QC is the head of Quadrant and behind much of its SWOT analysis and modernisation. He summarises the approach: “The key to driving the growth of Chambers has been to develop a clear vision of where we see the future of chambers, define our unique selling points and to ensure that these are understood and shared by all members of chambers and staff”.

Sarah Longden gives her analysis of the future of the Bar: “You need to be either very specialist or of sufficient size.” Commenting on the current trend for barristers and even teams to move between sets, she adds: “Traditionally, barristers never moved. Now there is a lot of movement. The model has not been set up to cope with that. There is no gardening leave. You could give your notice in on a Friday and be gone on Monday.” Peter Blair explains why there is so much activity: “Very often the reason given for moving is to find more stability.”

What this all means is that barristers sets need to become more adept at marketing and running their businesses well — not just in order to retain their clients but simply to survive. Understanding this has meant that Quadrant has managed to persuade its 63 practitioners (22 Queen’s Counsel and 41 junior barristers) to commit themselves to a more centralised approach. They now do things which would be normal in a solicitor’s practice but which are pioneering at the Bar. For instance, their system of 360-degree formal appraisal, carried out by external specialists, was “probably” the first one to be introduced in the Inns of Court, according to Blair. Similarly, they conduct client feedback research. This has fed into the provision of training on client care and soft skills for the practitioners. It might not sound so ground-breaking to someone unfamiliar with the Bar. But, in the past, the traditional barrister was viewed as a lofty figure, one who might have seen the concept of feedback as a tacit suggestion that they were imperfect.

Since solicitors firms are the main clients of Quadrant and most other sets, the feedback can take place on quite an elevated and technical level. The Quadrant barristers and their solicitor clients know each other extremely well — and lawyers from Baker McKenzie recently participated in their newsletter, while Latham & Watkins and Clyde & Co are taking part in forums put on by the Quadrant international arbitration group.

Work in the energy sector at Quadrant grew at the rate of 10 per cent over 2016/17, now accounting for 9 per cent of the set’s turnover. It is an example of the way Quadrant has diversified and expanded its appeal beyond the shipping sector. An international specialism, like shipping, it also grows in the areas where shipping is strong. Quadrant is currently working hard in China, Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia and Greece. These are the main locations where it has traditional strength in shipping and is building up its newer sector specialisms. These are all in areas that have some overlap with shipping: they are aviation, banking & finance, commercial litigation, commodities, energy, insurance and reinsurance and, of course, international arbitration.

Each of these practice areas has a ‘route to market’ group, effectively a marketing and business development unit with its own budget and decision-making. The international arbitration group, for instance, has two speaking events a year (updating clients on new developments), a newsletter which comes out six-monthly and social events. It also contributes a blog for the Practical Law legal know how service.

Innovation is taking place in many other ways. For instance, the set recently filmed a seminar for the first time, and now shipping clients can find out about ‘Supply Time’ forms by watching the video on the website. Barristers are being helped to blog more easily as Longden is organising the introduction of software (Passle) which will speed up the process for them. Twitter, famously limited to 140 characters, is “not necessarily something barristers would use as a medium”, says Longden. Nevertheless, shipping and commercial specialist James Turner QC — aka @shipbrief — is a regular twitterer.

But the main strategic focus is on broadening the set out into one that works globally and domestically, and which retains its shipping strength while expanding into a range of commercial sectors. That takes time. Talking of the visits that practitioners make to the main five locations abroad, Blair says: “We have been sending people out several times a year for a number of years. But it is only now that we are seeing substantial return on it.” Making investments of that scale is clearly a challenge for 63 barristers who are all, in theory, lone operators. However, the fact that they do make such large financial commitments together suggests that they have begun to think of themselves as one unit. More than that, if it takes such a long time to make returns, this kind of challenge is a barrier to entry to other sets who put less emphasis on collective marketing.

The day that PM interviewed the Quadrant team for this article the news came through that one London set was losing 20 junior barristers — half its team below QC level — with just three weeks notice. That kind of loss threatens the existence of a set. While Quadrant is reinforcing its position, there are many other sets who are vulnerable.