Monday, 26 February 2007

Selling yourself

By barristers. To solicitors. Generally for professional reasons. Nothing more exciting than that. I'll call barrister-solicitor schmoozing b-2-s to distinguish it from barrister-barrister schmoozing, which I'll refer to as b-2-b. I might write a post on b-2-b at some other point.

I've long been thinking about writing an entry on this subject. Nearly Legal recently brought it to the front of my mind with a really interesting post looking at this from the other side - why solicitors select (and de-select) barristers. I found Nearly Legal's thoughts both terrifying and reassuring. As long as I don't settle when the solicitor doesn't want me to, don't forget to call after every hearing, my clerks don't double book me, and I generally do exactly what the solicitor wants (including winning a goodly proportion of cases, presumably), I'll be fine. If I do a good job, I'll be OK. But can I do a good job? That's the real test.

Instructions can be incredibly brief and vague, I've seen, so it can be difficult to discern the wishes of the solicitor. These brief briefs generally come, rather unsurprisingly, from less well regarded firms or individuals. In contrast, some solicitors' demands can be very exacting. I used to work with a guy I'll call Hardial. He's the one person from whom I think I've learned the most, although none of it was legal. He once picked up a case I had let slip, having come to regard it as hopeless, only for the client to be removed from the UK, beaten on arrival at the airport and then returned to the UK after Hardial got an injunction requiring it because of the illegal removal without notice. The client is now a refugee and his family has joined him here, but no thanks to me. I went away for the weekend with some friends, Hardial worked all weekend on the case. However, I know from barristers that he is a nightmare to work with in some ways. He calls evenings and weekends even on non-urgent cases. If unimpressed, he bounces the barrister without hesitation, including dropping a QC from one appeal to the next on one occasion.

I was particularly amused to read this comment by Nearly Legal:

"Oddly enough though, Chambers and barristers schmoozing and offering jollies doesn’t seem to play a huge part in the process."

This doesn't at all surprise me, but I think it would come as a big surprise to a lot of barristers and clerks, who seem to set great store by these kinds of events. A few years ago I went to an enormous, now I believe semi-legendary, chambers party at a large and really well-known nightclub (I'd heard of it, therefore it MUST be famous) not far from Gray's Inn. I was surprised at the venue, which seemed a bit, well, fancy for a set of chambers priding itself on its progressive reputation and its work on behalf of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. I was a lot more surprised by the free bar and the rather nice free food. And there were a LOT of people there. As barristers are self employed, this was paid for from their own pockets. Apparently it cost about £8,000 each. Did each of their practices receive £8,000 worth of boost over the next year or two as a result of the party? No way.

A friend of mine took the leap before me and started pupillage maybe three years ago. He got tenancy, but his practice seems to be struggling so far. I see him fairly seldom, but did drop in on his chambers party last year. He was absolutely trashed by the time I got there, quite possibly deliberately in order to lower some dignity thresholds as well as his inhibitions, but was still trying to schmooze various solicitors. It was quite an unedifying sight, made more poignant by the fact his inebriation must inevitably have been a deterrent. As I was leaving, he staggered over to apologise for not speaking to me earlier, explained that he had been touting for business, then went into a passionate tirade about the indignity of the whole affair. He said he felt like he was prostituting himself.

I have been steeling myself for months now. I hope to get at least a few instructions from a few people I know, and I hope that my reasonably positive reputation will help me. However, I will need to let friends know that I'm available for and looking for work, and there's going to be no getting around the fact that I wouldn't be getting in touch with them on that particular occasion otherwise. With people I see fairly regularly it is less of a problem, with old colleagues and others I tend to see by chance these days, I'm really not looking forward to it. The way forward has to be an upfront and unembarrassed approach. Anything else will just make it worse for all concerned.


JB said...

Having worked in solicitors' firms I've seen how some barristers can be ditched for the smallest of things. But I have to hold up my hand and admit that when I've clerked hearings, and the barrister has treated me like crap he found on the sole of his shoe, I always gave him a bad review to the solicitor in the hope he'd get ditched.

With regards b-2-s pimping, perhaps writing phone numbers on the walls of toilet cubicles and business cards stuck up in phone boxes is the way forward.

Anonymous said...

Your comments just cracked me up.

I know for a fact that solicitors will be encouraged to send work to Chambers that entertain them. This is seen as a "thank you" for the the work they send, and is welcomed. This encourages further work to be sent and relationships to be forged.

It is a given that the level of service has to be of the highest order. But the Chambers that take time to make the solicitors feel special will be rewarded. It's human nature, and no different from the world of commerce.

As for prostituting yourself - well - what century are you living in? All professionals wine and dine, offer seminars, trips to the theatre, the footbal, rugby. They do it because it helps oil the wheels of commerce.

Your barrister mate sounds like an old dinosaur. An also-ran.

You all need to embrace the fact that this is marketing and needs to be done.

Wake up to the modern world or die.

Pupilblogger said...

I'm not so sure as you that throwing a party is 'marketing', never mind effective marketing. A lot depends on the work you are doing and your audience. In social law, where I have experience, one's ability to throw a good party is not a deciding factor for most (good) solicitors. Unless you can cook a particularly mean nut cutlet, or thrown in some free beard trimming. Seminars, on the other hand, do work as quite an effective marketing tool.

Anonymous said...

Throwing a party is marketing: it's giving people food, drinks and letting them see that you are an all round good bloke - good company, witty and intelligent. Unless of course you are boorish, mean sprited and introverted. In those circumstances - a party is a no-no.

Parties work well - but effort and planning needs to go into them. When conducted well a whole host of barristers can mingle and chin wag with solicitors.


Which century were you living in, by the way?

Big banks and major coprporations organise parties for clients. We must let them know the folly and errors of their ways and teach them the means of making profits.

Seminars are excellent too.

Success for all marketing events lies in the planning and the operation.

Pupilblogger said...

Forgot to do this yesterday - Nearly Legal had difficulty posting a comment so emailed me instead. Comment pasted in from email:

Heh. I didn't mean to be quite so terrifying. After all, we are only asking for utter reliability, consistency and occasional brilliance. Not hard is it?

We do get overprotective, but then they are our clients and cases we might have been carefully nuturing for months.

On the other hand, you are quite right that those that give bad brief deserve what they may get.

In the end, like so much else, it is a matter of trust. In that regard, I think your 'way forward' of an open and unembarrassed approach is exactly right - it would work with me at least.