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Is the lack of a frequent performance appraisal for chambers being a missed opportunity?

Is it time to look at the benefits of an effective performance appraisal for chambers?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

A performance appraisal might not be the sort of thing that springs to mind when you think of chambers. As opposed to working in a top-down firm, chambers are clearly far less prescriptive in their day-to day running allowing barristers to do business off of the back of their own merits as an individual. As such a performance appraisal for chambers seems, at first glance, a potentially odd fit.

But how much work a barrister has is determined by their skillset and reputation. Self-promotion is a skill all of its own, and an effective and targeted appraisal process opens the door for individuals to reflect upon and highlight their best qualities.

According to the Bar Council, there are over 16,500 barristers in the Bar of England and Wales. In 2019, Statista found that there were more than 24,000 practicing barristers and judges in the UK as a whole. Now more than ever, it is vital for up-and-coming barristers to make use of positive feedback in order to stand out, and though seen as an exercise not classically fitted to the chamber’s eco-system of work, perhaps it’s time to take another look?

Barrister’s chambers must change with the times

The role of a barrister is changing, slowly but surely. In many areas of the law, it is becoming more and more common for cases to be settled out of court. In a 2016 interview, Bill Braithwaite QC, Head of Chambers for Exchange Commerce highlighted the decrease in court cases by revealing that he finalises £50 million in personal injury claims a year, all through out-of-court negotiation. As such, he had a lot to say about how barristers must adapt in the modern day:

Some barristers may well resist a performance appraisal for chambers, but many are starting to see a real benefit.
Could a performance appraisal for chambers help barristers focus on their strengths and weaknesses in order to improve their own skillset?

‘Continuing training for barristers is important; I think we should have far more stringent requirements for training. A major part of our expertise is, or should be in my opinion, specialisation, because that is what marks us out from generalists. […] Along with training, I think that performance appraisal is increasingly important. I know we are all self-employed, and that some barristers regard that as permitting them to do what they want, regardless of whether that fits into the corporate ambition, but I feel that we must all recognise that the corporation is important. By way of example, it is probably sensible for chambers to have a set of values, both for the organisation and for its barrister members that all adhere to and these, at the very least, should form the basis of any appraisal’

While law firms are generally comparable to other office environments, chambers are very much their own creature. When someone is employed by a firm, they benefit from the employee support networks put in place by the organisation. If an associate struggles with their mental health, or their work/life balance, the firm likely has systems in place to help them; but what about barristers, who are self-employed?

Junior barristers, in particular, are under pressure to work long hours and put in the graft to build their reputation but lack the support they would get working for a firm. Chambers could stand to benefit from looking at how they support the wellbeing of their sets. So, the question is, how can we improve this? Well a potential process by which concerns around wellbeing could be raised, would be a frequent check-in (via a simple survey, email questionnaire or a more sophisticated tool, such as Weekly10) accompanied by a less frequent appraisal. Giving that face to face time to members of a chambers is crucial in order to normalise the practice of sharing issues and concerns to the betterment of the whole.

Weekly10 has streamlined our performance appraisal process. We’re now having conversations based on real-evidence making our sit downs more targeted and impactful.

James Nutt – Mr Fothergills

Beyond the barristers

Of course, it isn’t just barristers themselves who can benefit from an effective performance appraisal process. No chamber would be complete without the teams of clerks who keep all the different parts of the machine running smoothly. As these two professions spend so much time working together in such a high-pressure environment, friction is bound to happen. Just one benefit of an effective review process, with appropriate levels of confidentiality in the right places, is an effective steam valve to air grievances before the pressure becomes critical.

Between the barristers and clerks, however, it can be easy to sweep everyone else working in law chambers under the rug. Needless to say, HR departments would benefit massively from a streamlined review process, but so would public relations. With easy access to a laundry list of their barristers’ most recent accomplishments, PR executives could greatly enhance their ability to promote not only the emerging legal talent but the chamber as a whole.

Traditional performance appraisals and why they’re off-putting

Mention employee evaluation in any office in Britain, and you’ll probably get a tepid reaction at best. This is because old-fashioned methods of performance review tend to make people on all sides anxious at best, downright miserable at worst. Employees don’t want to have the book thrown at them, and a loss of morale can be devastating for individual productivity. Meanwhile, it can be quite uncomfortable for employers to deliver harsh but necessary criticism and planning them can be a real time-drain.  As soon as it’s over, all parties involved often forget half of what was discussed and spend the rest of the year dreading the next one. On top of that, the recipient of the feedback won’t usually get it in a timely manner. Nobody wants to sit down and have every mistake they’ve made over the past year repeated back to them, long after the time has passed in which they could have done anything about it.

The fact that old-fashioned methods of performance evaluation are deeply flawed is hardly new information. In 2018, the Society for Human Resource Management found that 90% of HR professionals don’t think their company’s review procedures give accurate information, while 95% of managers expressed dissatisfaction with how their companies handled these evaluations.

With the legal profession being so steed in tradition, could the idea of performance appraisals for barristers and clerks be seen as little more than a hindrance?

The benefits of a digital review platform

Aside from making employee and colleague evaluations more efficient, digital assessment systems can benefit their users in other ways. Many of these platforms effectively allow professionals to keep a journal of their experiences at work and the issues they are having. According to the University of Rochester Medical Centre, the mental health benefits of journaling are well-established, from stress reduction and keeping a routine, to managing anxiety and depression.

A streamlined review platform taking advantage of modern technology allows co-workers to deal with issues and conflicts quickly and tactfully. Such platforms also enable the promotion of any employee’s accomplishments for everyone else to see. So when a clerk’s performance review rolls around, they will be able to mention by name any barrister they feel showed exemplary performance, or went above and beyond the call of duty, they can tag them by name. This positive feedback can be made publicly available, allowing the barrister to highlight their skills and strengthen their reputation. A platform for digital appraisals can not only increase the regularity of these reviews and the relevancy of their feedback, but can also do away with their former disruptiveness. Instead of scheduling half an hour in the middle of a busy workday for an awkward conversation about what you could be doing better, simply log on and take a few minutes each week to respond to your evaluation questions.

New hardware, advances in software, social media and the internet are constantly changing how we do various jobs, and with so many people applying for so few pupillages, and only so many turning directly into a tenancy, it’s more important than ever for prospective barristers and those within chambers to be able to promote themselves, reflect upon performance and simply review how they are doing on a multitude of levels. But just because you have a good understanding of your area of law, and the ability to verbally argue a point well doesn’t mean you’re good at promoting yourself. Many are talented barristers who fell through the cracks because they couldn’t get themselves noticed in a highly competitive profession. A streamlined digital review process, in combination with a great chambers Chief Exec and good public relations and human resources management, represents a way for these people to highlight their strengths and accomplishments without taking time out of their incredibly busy day.

If you think your chambers could benefit from a streamlined digital review process for its barristers and direct employees, why not book a free demo with Weekly10 today?

Want to improve performance management at your chambers?

Research Associate