Guest blog: Tim Collins - Eyes on the prize

17 November 2016

For those of you too busy to read this article, here is my advice in a nutshell for leadership and management at the Bar:

  1. be curious - be willing to learn;

  2. make time to think;

  3. take purposeful steps.

If you're still with me, I'll start by stating that I think the simple chambers' business model is excellent and can continue to be serve the Bar well in the future. The challenge lies with us: a basic lack of trust and precious little time invested in management or leadership learning. I've witnessed an enormous amount of change at the Bar over the last two decades. Some of the core drivers have been technological developments, changing markets, legislation, government funding, growing competition, increasingly sophisticated clients and burgeoning regulatory requirements.  Following trends in other business sectors, the chambers themselves have grown bigger - through mergers and tenants moving to perceived stronger sets. Inevitably, this has led to chambers themselves becoming much more complex and management-hungry organisations.

The problem we are failing to address is that we have increasingly busy practitioners, working under greater pressure with considerable management and leadership responsibilities.

We have many chambers' clerks with fantastic experience gained from years working with the Bar and some from other industries and organisations. But although the Bar faces many similar challenges to other professions it is unique. We must recognise that the same old thinking and ways of doing things will prove to be inadequate. And woe betide the chief executive who thinks he or she can apply the same management thinking that worked in their previous roles.

Let's get back to the basics and appreciate why I think the chambers' business model is brilliant. You gather a talented bunch of individuals, who share common values and who want to collaborate. 'Collaboration' is a buzz word featuring increasingly in management and leadership discussions, but often the way it is promoted is phoney and unworkable.It is ok to ask "What's in it for me?".  I see the purpose of a chambers as recruiting, nurturing and developing talent and enabling those individuals to provide excellent legal advice and advocacy for their clients. In essence, chambers should be a place where barristers thrive. I acknowledge that the challenges faced by a top commercial set and a third tier common law set will be very different, but there will be some common themes too.

As in all cohorts there will be some exceptional individual players and some very poor performers but 90%+ will be in the main pack. My mantra for many years was that quality of relationships with clients and speed of response can give counsel from the pack a sustainable competitive advantage. I think the pupillage model can be fantastic and something that other industries can learn from. I've seen pupil supervisors establish fantastic bonds of trust with their pupils and that culture of sharing values, being willing to give time and to offer help and advice over the years has been priceless. Unfortunately, over recent years it has, in some instances, descended into a soulless tick box exercise.

When I spoke at the LPMA Conference and to the IBC this year, I shared two of my favourite Albert Einstein quotes:

"We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them".

"Insanity: Doing the same thing repeatedly and yet expecting a different result".

I decided to use these quotes following a conversation with the very experienced senior clerk of a 150+ tenant set. It has become increasingly difficult to manage a chambers as the Bar strives to respond to a rapidly changing and more complex legal market place.  So let's stop, catch our breath, look around, ask some fundamental questions and give ourselves some time to think:

Why does chambers exist? If my chambers ceased, where would I go and why? How would you describe the culture and values of your chambers? How is it really different from other chambers? Are you learning and developing? Does everyone feel valued and appreciated? Do I trust the leadership of chambers? What experience do our leaders have and how much are we investing in their development? What smart things are people doing in other sectors and how could we adopt some of those ideas?

There are loads of great resources freely (literally) available. Over the past few months I've picked up some great insights on topics ranging from innovation to emotional intelligence to systems and process management. The psychology of pricing and even to design thinking. The issue isn't the resources or knowledge but the desire or hunger to learn and respond. Q: How many barristers does it take to change a light bulb? A: CHANGE?!! 

TC DIAGRAM

 

The pace of change can create a learned helplessness with "depressed" organisations and we all know at least some colleagues who struggle with stress, other mental health issues, drug, alcohol, financial, grief and relationship problems. The Bar isn't unique in having these issues but the demands of the work and being self-employed make it an even more challenging environment. Most barristers have to be resilient and self-confident but this can morph into arrogance with inevitably suboptimal management and leadership within chambers.

What do you want your chambers to be like and how do you want others to see it? There is often a gap between the vision and the reality and that dissonance causes much organisational tension. Crucially, there has to be an alignment between your words and your actions; even for barristers, actions really do speak louder than words!  Managing a chambers isn't rocket science - but it is all about people.  The old management paradigm of targets and control is woefully inadequate and we need to borrow from the pupillage model at its best to trust and coach one another.

Be bold, create the time to be inquisitive, develop a dream and take some purposeful steps towards it. As the song goes: "Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on"! 

Tim Collins, The Tim Collins Consultancy