Complaints against barristers more than doubled last year, according to the latest figures from the Bar Standards Board (BSB). The number of complaints increased by 54% between April 2021 and March 2022, when compared to the previous year.
Cases involving social media jumped from 49 to 89, while matters relating to conduct at work unrelated to legal services provision, spiked by 132%, from 131 to 304.
However, whilst I'll leave it to others on how to deal with cutting the number of complaints, the knock-on reputational impact on the Bar as a profession is a topic that needs urgent attention.
The way the Bar operates and the structure of the chambers model makes the profession vulnerable to a reputational fall-out from barristers' misconduct. The self-employed nature of much of the Bar gives management in chambers limited involvement in how a barrister conducts themselves and leaves much to the strength of the constitution.
When a crisis hits, chambers are suddenly in a tight spot.
Few chambers are set up for a reputational crisis, partly because the personnel whose job it is to handle a crisis are not often found in-house. Law firms and other professional services providers, like many businesses, will have a plan in place and in-house or retained public relations professionals on hand to kick into action the moment a threat is detected.
When it comes to the Bar, we have often been called in to manage a crisis quite late in the process, making it much more difficult to limit the reputational damage.
As crisis communications experts, we are usually initially brought in to manage the external fall-out of a crisis in the media and on social media. But there tends to be so much that needs to happen before the holding statements are drafted. We are frequently asked for our advice on the wider, more practical implications for chambers in handling a crisis that a more traditional employer would be able to handle via its HR team and policies.
At the very least, chambers should be prepared.
Chambers should have in place a skeleton plan in case a member finds themselves on the wrong side of the BSB, is facing criminal charges or has caused an ugly storm on social media. That should include identifying key people to deal with any external enquiries regarding the matter at hand, as well as sign off processes for any public or internal statements the chambers want to make in response to the issue.
Ensuring a level playing field
The BSB will often seek to publicise the outcome of a BTAS hearing where there are sanctions against a barrister and will inform the media. The Daily Mail, as well as other nationals, the legal trades and the regional media will all report on barristers' misconduct… and they won’t hold their deadlines if you’re not prepared. Therefore, be ready for press interest and enquiries.
This is where it gets tricky. Few sets have a dedicated PR professional in-house to manage a communications crisis and it would be foolish to think the press, who the BSB will be familiar with, will suddenly listen to a set they've never heard of.
In these circumstances, chambers need someone who has good links with the media and an understanding of how the press operate, and even a sense of which journalists on specific titles are likely to report on the story.
The priority at this point is protecting the chambers' wider reputation from the damage caused by the actions of a sanctioned barrister. Having crisis communications experts on call when you need them can pay long-term dividends to the reputation of a set.
Things can only get better... or worse
The statistics from the BSB aren't pretty, but they tell an important tale and hint at the direction of travel for the Bar. The rise of social media simply gives more opportunity for barristers to fall foul of their regulatory obligations and that has an impact on a chambers' reputation.
The Bar Council and others' efforts to guide the Bar against sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination might have now prompted more people to have the confidence to come forward and report it than in the past. Not a bad thing, but it is surely more reason for chambers to expect to have to deal with the subsequent communications crisis that follows.
The risks of a reputational crisis have grown for the Bar, but not all chambers have reflected that risk in their planned response. The profession is more visible than ever before. Each time a barrister and their chambers are left ruddy faced from a very public crisis, it damages the profession's and a chambers' reputation, which will affect its profits and its future.
It's time the Bar caught up with other professions and followed the old adage of "failing to plan is planning to fail."
Key points to remember in a crisis
When a crisis hits, it’s essential that chambers do the following:
- Recognise when you have a crisis, such as negative press coverage, a Twitter storm, complaints
- Appoint a team that has ‘access all areas’ to manage it
- Get all the information
- Tell the truth
- Keep talking to all the people involved
- Make real changes, and,
- Spot when the crisis is over.
Melissa Davis, Founder and Chief Executive of MD Communications, the global reputation and communications consultancy working in the legal and professional service sectors.
Steve Rudaini, Partner at MD Communications, and former Director of Communications at the Bar Council of England & Wales.