One barrister emailed me not long ago, having read my book, True Worth, saying he had worked out the figures on a particular case and it came to £23 an hour! £23.00 an hour.
Imagine his surprise. He was shocked and so was I.
He was earning a lot less than a plumber (no disrespect to plumbers intended) on that particular piece of work. How on earth was this possible? After all, he had worked hard to become a barrister and he is an experienced one, not a pupil.
Do you often find yourself running around like crazy, working really long hours, yet the fees that you earn don’t necessarily reflect the time you’ve devoted to your work?
If you answered yes, you’re definitely not alone.
This then becomes a vicious circle which is self-perpetuating.
Or perhaps you’ve been so busy that you haven’t even had the time to take stock so you can’t answer that question.
Whether working within chambers or completely independent running your own practice, you are undoubtedly a highly intelligent, skilled individual who knows your stuff and cares about what you do, often working long hours to satisfy your clients’ needs.
Like other professionals, you are not immune to the challenges which the business aspect of your work may pose, despite having clerks to negotiate your fees, at least if you belong to chambers. If you’re an independent, of course, you have the same challenges as lawyers do.
If you are, what I call a heart-led individual, who works with clients going through particularly tough times, it’s doubly difficult, even if you do not have to have those money conversations.
The reason is because even if the correct fees have been negotiated by the clerks (and of course that depends on how good they are at their job and how involved you are in agreeing fees), it doesn’t stop you from over-servicing clients because you just don’t have the heart to, as you see it, add insult to injury by billing the full fee.
I totally understand not only how this is possible but why it happens, all too frequently. It’s simple really. You trained as a barrister, you love the work you do, you love helping people and you didn’t train to be a business person.
In my experience talking to and working with self-employed barristers, you are just as susceptible as lawyers, or any other professional, for that matter, to under-valuing yourself which undoubtedly impacts on both your revenue and your time.
Even though you’re not handling the money conversations with referrers or direct access clients, doesn’t mean to say that you’re not influencing what you’re getting paid, what you are and aren’t willing to do and as previously mentioned, whether you over-service clients. Of course, this is often unconscious behaviour.
I remember a client who was the only one in a chambers of around 50 barristers who was doing any legal aid work, even though it was having a serious impact on his business. When I explored it with him, it came down to a belief that had been instilled in him by his father when he was a child, which was:
You must always help those less fortunate than yourself.”
The belief may be a good one to have on a personal level, yet from a business perspective, it was catastrophic. This was driving his behaviour. Having brought that to the surface through coaching, he was able to make a conscious decision to stop it.
As a barrister, the situation for you is complicated. Although you are self-employed, you are not totally free to do exactly as you may wish.
Your unique way of working means that you appear to have several masters:
The Bar Standards’ Board
Referring law firms and direct access clients
That’s an awful lot of people to satisfy, isn’t it?
So let’s take them one by one and shine some light on them, so you can perhaps begin to have a different perspective and get more of a grip on the business side of things.
The Bar Standards’ Board
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to be done here. You have to follow their code of conduct and that’s that.
Chambers provide you with a service for which no doubt you pay a significant percentage of your fees.
Are you making the most out of this?
Could you get involved with the management side, so you can influence how they operate, if you’re not already?
Do you network with fellow barristers so you are able to help each other with cross-selling, for example? Perhaps some of them work with different law firms from you and vice versa and you may be missing out on work, as you have not built the necessary relationships with your colleagues.
How else could you improve not only your business but also the quality of your life by working more closely with chambers and your colleagues?
Although, in essence, you employ the clerks and not the other way around, it may sometimes appear otherwise, depending on how involved you are in deciding fees and the type of work you will and won’t do. (I remember one barrister telling me he didn’t actually know his charge-out rate, which to a non-barrister business owner such as myself seems quite extraordinary.)
However, since the clerks are the ones who are negotiating fees on your behalf, it may be easy for them to think they have all the power and potentially for you to abdicate a certain amount of responsibility, isn’t it?
After all, you’re busy serving your clients and that’s why you became a barrister. Of course, not having to do the negotiation is a bonus, particularly if you don’t feel confident with that. However, if I were in your shoes, I would definitely want to be a key part of the process of agreeing fees, even if ultimately I was not the person having the final discussions.
The key is always to communicate with the clerks clearly, so that they understand what you expect in terms of your fees as well as the sort of work you will and equally importantly won’t do. There is obviously a balance in that you want to create a harmonious relationship with clerks so that they feel valued and want to do their very best for the client, chambers and you.
Potentially, how well you do this will ultimately determine how much you earn and the quality of the work that you are given and consequently, the quality of your life.
Referring Law Firms
The clerks have negotiated the fees for you for a particular piece of work from a referring law firm. The fee seems reasonable and you’re happy with it. Your relationship with the law firm is good and they send you plenty of work. You get on well with your contact who has almost become like a friend.
This may mean that the lines have become blurred. It’s easily done. It’s human nature. Because of that, even though it may be unconscious, that referring firm may take a little advantage of you, squeezing extra bits of work in that were not included in the original scope of work or there’s a tacit agreement that you go the extra mile.
I remember a client who told me about one of his referrers who did this. I coached him to contact the referrer and to have a conversation with him about this. His referrer completely understood and agreed to the additional charges, so he was able to bill extra on a particular job and had set the scene for a new way of working in the future.
Even though it frustrated him, he would never have considered doing that prior to coaching; he just accepted it.
It’s all about becoming more consciously aware of your habits and behaviour and for that matter, those of others you’re working with, so you can begin to take more control over your destiny.
Direct Access Clients
The only difference here is that, unlike referring law firms, direct access clients are likely to be one-offs. Otherwise, the same behaviours can occur as with referred clients.
Ultimately, when it comes to creating the revenue you desire and therefore the corresponding lifestyle, the buck stops with you.
The clerks won’t pay your taxes and if an invoice isn’t paid, you’re the one who really suffers, as you’re losing money and still have to pay tax on it.
Added to that are the rigours of the work per se, and the habits learned as a junior.
Here is an extract of another ‘conversation’ which I had recently over LinkedIn with a QC:
“Unfortunately for those who are lucky enough to be given silk, the habits learned as a junior, namely doing everything at the last minute because that’s the only way to survive, survive. And I (and most) end up doing nothing in the lulls and then scrambling around needlessly in the busy periods without having prepared for the busy periods properly.”
This is so revealing and explains much of why experienced barristers are also not totally in charge of their business.
In summary, the chances are, even if you’re a red-hot barrister, it doesn’t mean that you’re getting paid your true worth. By now, you hopefully understand that it’s time to take charge of your business. As a first step, ask yourself the following questions:
- How involved am I in the business aspect of my work?
- Do I know what I’ve been paid for each case and whether it is a good deal or not, depending on the number of hours I have worked?
- How much aged debt do I have and how old is it?
- How is this being addressed?
- Depending on the answers above, how is all this impacting on me? On my partner? On my children? On the quality of my life?
- If I carry on like this, what will it be like in one year’s time, 5 years’ time, 10 years’ time, i.e. is this sustainable?
If you’ve answered the above 6 questions honestly and all is perfect in your world then well done. However, if that is not the case and you don’t want to carry on the same way, then the answer is to be willing to change. I’ll be honest; it’s simple yet it’s not necessarily easy. Changing habits takes endeavour and persistence and often external assistance.
Having said that, you can make a start right now.
Get involved more with the business by:
- making sure that you have a real handle on what the clerks are doing so that you are getting a fair deal
- check your numbers
- be more involved with chambers
Earning less than a plumber, should never be an option. You are worth so much more than that.
If you’d like a complimentary informal discussion about your practice, please get in touch by tel: 01202 743961, email: [email protected] or via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/vanessaugattitrueworthexpert/
I’m Vanessa Ugatti, author of Amazon Best Seller, True Worth: How to Charge What You’re Worth and Get It. I help accountants, lawyers and consultants to generate more income, have more time and create more freedom without having to get more clients, do more work or compromise value or values.
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