Our Chambers Director Liz Dux is quoted in The Times today discussing the impact of remote working on the Bar and how we have adapted to the “new normal” at Littleton. Read the full article below.
Forced to adapt swiftly to online court appearances and meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, many barristers continue to enjoy the benefits of working from home even though the health crisis is over.
With fewer members coming daily to chambers — the buildings that self-employed barristers have historically used to share administrative support — some sets are looking to downsize.
The absence of more senior barristers in chambers is giving rise to fears about the training of pupils, who must complete a 12-month apprenticeship before being fully qualified. There are also growing concerns over the mentoring of junior tenants who gained their wings during Covid.
David Greene, a former president of the Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, who instruct barristers, suggests that remote working presents a threat to the “collegiate nature of the Bar and the character of chambers”.
Greene, the senior partner at Edwin Coe, a law firm based in Lincoln’s Inn, says that the daily interaction where barristers pop in to swap war stories is more than just a “quaint tradition”. It is an important way of passing on training and its loss, Greene says, could lead to a more “corporate approach” to barristers’ training.
A survey commissioned by the Bar Council last year on “life at the young Bar” revealed the “lost opportunities to observe, learn, build professional networks and secure the support to flourish” during the pandemic. One junior barrister reported missing out on “a massive piece of learning” by not forming relationships with senior members and not hearing questions from other pupils.
Another told researchers: “The reason that chambers exist is for the camaraderie and collaborative aspect of the work.”
Since the end of lockdown, the picture across chambers is mixed, depending on the size, practice areas of members and geographical location. Long before the pandemic, greater use of electronic case papers by criminal barristers meant that many specialist sets had scaled back on their rooms, Nick Vineall KC, chairman of the Bar Council, says.
He suggests that Covid has resulted in a more profound change in civil law sets, where attendance levels are “well below” pre-pandemic levels. In London, Vineall suggests that the “inevitable” decline in the demand for space poses a challenge for the four historic Inns of Court — Gray’s, Lincoln’s and Inner and Middle Temple. The Inns are the landlords for most chambers, which have buildings within their grounds.
More positively, he speculates that the trend might result in some of the chambers that have moved away returning to the Inns.
The most serious issue, Vineall says, is the training of pupils. “Pupillage cannot satisfactorily be delivered remotely, but it can be challenging for chambers to find enough pupil supervisors prepared to commit to being regularly in chambers,” he explains.
Of the four Inns, only Lincoln’s responded to The Times about requests for less space. It said that there was “some consolidation of accommodation” but also reported requests for “additional space from both existing and new tenants”.
Littleton Chambers is a specialist employment and commercial set with 52 members at 3 King’s Bench Walk. Reduced attendance and an “increased demand for room-sharing and hot-desking”, the director Liz Dux says, have led it to surrender some of its building back to its landlord, Inner Temple.
To encourage attendance, her set has adapted all meeting rooms to accommodate online hearings, established a mentoring scheme for junior barristers and holds monthly lunches.
Cornerstone Barristers, which specialises in public law, is based nearby in Gray’s Inn Square. It has had a different experience as most of its barristers have returned, according to its chief executive, Clare Bello.
Jemma Tagg, the chief executive of Twenty Essex, says that although some barristers at the commercial set, based just outside the Temple, on Essex Street, are working remotely more frequently, most want to retain their own room in chambers.
Tagg says that as a result of growth and the need for more communal space to promote collegiality, the set is in the process of taking on additional premises.
Radcliffe Chambers, a commercial set in Lincoln’s Inn, has experienced a trend towards “suburb networking”, the chambers’ chief executive, Fiona Fitzgerald says. She adds that members are organising meetings and social events closer to their homes.
Away from the capital, Joe Wilson, the director at St Philips Chambers in Birmingham, reports that only 20 per cent of the set’s 150 members are coming in each day, compared with 50 to 60 per cent before the pandemic.
Wilson says that the set is not looking to reduce its space because the members own their building. If that were not the case, he suggests that the set would be exploring options. Wilson says that St Philips Chambers has invested heavily in technology and created several “virtual courtrooms” to allow members to conduct remote hearings and conferences.
Junior barristers are inevitably seeing less of their more senior colleagues but Wilson insists that their training remains good, although their experience is drawn from a smaller pool of established practitioners. While pupillage training has not changed, the set is strict in its requirement for pupils and their supervisors to have face-to-face contact at least four days a week.
One of the largest and oldest chambers, 3 Paper Buildings, is based in six locations — London, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Oxford and Winchester. Footfall, its chief executive, Simon Astill says, is down by 10 to 15 per cent.