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Case files in the cloud, feet on the ground - July-26-12
Source: The Times - Law
One group of legal practitioners is embracing the realities of the new world created by the Legal Services Act
Their case files are stored in the cloud, they hold partnership meetings by Skype and hotdesk from one room. It is six months since a ground-breaking move by six barristers and a solicitor who wanted to set up an alternative way of working — exploiting the freedoms of the Legal Services Act.
Artesian Law opened for business in January as an LDP, or legal disciplinary partnership, regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, while the barrister members are regulated by the Bar Standards Board. Already it is expanding. Last week it took on its first silk, Bryan Cox, from Park Court Chambers in Leeds, as a door tenant, and a pupil, who has joined for six months with a view to a permanent position as an associate member.
The six, all senior criminal barristers, were previously at Charter Chambers. But the costs at the Criminal Bar, with its high overheads and squeeze on earnings, forced them to think laterally. Jonathan Rose says: “We used to pay 23 per cent of our income in overheads. Now it is down to 10 per cent. That has been our starting point. We keep all our data in the cloud, rather than in 6,000 square feet of office space.”
The traditional chambers model is a collection of self-employed individuals with shared administrative back-up, clerks and premises. Artesian operates more like a firm of solicitor-advocates. “The traditional chambers structure is wonderful,” says Tarquin McCalla, another of the six. “We all enjoyed the collegiate structure. But it is outmoded. You don’t need to have a top-flight service. All of us can be instructed by direct access [without the need for a solicitor-referral] in appropriate cases.”
Tom Street, the practice manager, will run the business side, leaving the barristers to do the advocacy. All are known and the work has been constant. “Our skill is advocacy but we are trying to do it in a way that is commercially viable,” McCalla says. “In the criminal field, commercially viable enterprises are increasingly difficult.”
With all documents and attendance notes scanned into the computer system, it is easy to access or collect the papers for a case. They are rarely all in London at their premises at Bolt Court, Fleet Street, at any one time. McCalla says: “Three of us are currently in trials part-heard in Sheffield, so meetings are difficult. We use Skype instead.”
They are proud of their website and want to promote a more corporate image, with all partners up to speed in technology. “You get some barristers in chambers who don’t even send e-mail,” McCalla says. “We want systems in place. We don’t want to be a ramshackle collection of individuals.”
Some solicitors have viewed them with suspicion. But they are not, they insist, out for solicitors’ work. Rose says: “There’s a lot of competition from solicitors who have their own in-house advocates. The junior Bar is having a dreadful time: the average yearly income is about £25,000, with huge overheads out of that.”
They admit, though, that another driver is the prospect of the controversial “one case, one fee”. Plans have been delayed but it would mean, in legal aid work, one fee per case, not separate ones for solicitors and barristers. Solicitors could decide the advocate’s fee. But Artesian, and some other barristers, see this as a chance to pitch for the work themselves, securing the contracts and paying the solicitors. As an LDP they can handle clients’ money.
The next step is to apply to be an alternative business structure, enabling their practice manager to become a partner. The LDP allows lawyers to set up in partnership with each other but not with other professionals. They also recognise the need to diversify into more regulatory work.
As a partnership, Artesian differs from another new venture, Riverview Chambers, which has attracted some of the top silks in the UK including Richard Lissack, Jonathan Caplan and Stephen Tromans. They retain their existing chambers’ membership, which some critics say could lead to conflicts of interest. Similarly, Fulcrum Chambers last year set up an SRA-regulated LLP, specialising in international corruption, with some barrister-partners also door tenants of other chambers.
But Cox, the new QC, will do the same. If the work comes to him through his existing chambers, he does the work for chambers; if it comes via Artesian, he does it for them. For the partnership, it means more work in-house, McCalla says. “In some cases we have had to say to instructing solicitors — do you mind if we go outside Artesian and instruct a QC? Now we can provide the whole service.”
For Cox, it makes sense, being Leeds- based, to be a door tenant in London. Artesian, he says, was the best option. “It takes the best of the Bar, quality and commitment with a modern approach and is efficient with low overheads.” In due course he may become a partner and dismisses issues of conflicts of interest, if partners are on the same case. “I don’t see it as any different from chambers now. Everyone still has the same independence, ethics and standards. A few years ago, there’d have been ‘consternation’ at an arrangement like Artesian. Now people are going down different routes. The Bar will be unrecognisable in a few years’ time.”
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