But, at the surface, life at the Victorian Bar in 2016 is largely the same as in 2013 (albeit with doughnuts). Or is it?
Barrister innovation is loud and proud in the UK. Former barrister Tony Blair changed the law in 2004 to allow direct access briefing, but few barristers initially took advantage of that opportunity because of cultural pressures.
But now there are startups in the UK that allow direct briefing and more:
- Launched by an American expat in 2014, myBarrister matches clients directly with barristers. It has hooked up with litigation funder Augusta Ventures to finance the cost of a claimant’s claim in return for a pre-agreed share of any damages awarded.
- Absolute Barrister also allows direct briefing of barristers, but with the option of monthly retainer pricing for businesses and an encrypted portal for barristers and clients to communicate directly. The unbundled services extend beyond representation to letter and contract drafting, merits advice and dispute strategy.
And in 2015, the UK Bar Services Board allowed barristers to become incorporated entities. This allows for the creation of companies or partnerships that provide advocacy, litigation, and expert legal advice services.
The proposal has been met with great enthusiasm by the Bar with 90 expressions of interest, although most suspect this is because of the tax savings.
The initial entities didn’t seem to have a service offering different from that of the individual barrister. But last month Bright Line Law commenced practice, providing specialist advisory, advocacy, litigation, policy and strategic services regarding white collar crime. Its founder, leading white collar crime silk Jonathan Fisher QC, describes it as an attempt to bring together the various strands of his financial crime and proceeds of crime practice, plus academic teaching, policy and law reform and training. The entity’s website incorporates a portal for lawyers and accountants to share thoughts on significant developments in the field of white collar crime.
We don’t expect rule changes permitting barristers to incorporate or to be retained by businesses as general counsel (the Victorian Bar is open-minded about working with businesses direct). However, with proper protections to ensure that barristers retain their independence, we cannot see any real impediment to similar innovations here.
Even so, these aren’t the problems that need to be ‘solved’ in Australia right now. And there is in fact a lot of legal innovation quietly happening at the Victorian Bar, solving the everyday pain points encountered by barristers, solicitors and their clients.
At Legal Economy, our goal is to make it easier for solicitors to engage barristers by creating a tender-based engagement process. It will allow barristers to have access to greater variety of work and enable them to take on work that suits them. For solicitors it will mean no more last minute call arounds to clerks to see who is available and less reliance on clerks’ opinions about suitable barristers for particular briefs. And for barristers looking for work, they can do so on the basis of merit – revolutionary, hey?
Trolleys and trolleys of documents are another point of pain being solved by creative thought at the Bar. Melbourne-made app Advocate, a collaboration between two barristers and a software development company, helps litigators use technology to organise information in new ways and store it in the cloud. It allows users to:
- edit and annotate PDF documents;
- create a mind map for each case, with nodes to organise thoughts and documents;
- easily link specific pages of any PDF document to any nodes within a mind map;
- create exhibit lists as documents are tendered, with descriptions and search filters to navigate between documents; and
- synchronise all documents and maps through Dropbox, and save copies of documents on an iPad for working offline.
Organising information in this way seems sure to put central-Melbourne physiotherapists and chiropractors out of business. But we think it can also give advocates a strategic advantage as they develop new links between discrete pieces of information and can understand a case’s facts and issues in new ways.
And then there is the Victorian Bar’s own service, BarristerConnect, which lets clerks take leads for direct briefs for criminal charges in the Magistrates' Court. Whilst it doesn’t let the user choose the barrister, we just love the fact it exists. The Bar needs to balance so many different points of view so we can only imagine the difficulty in getting this up and running. It speaks highly of the Victorian Bar that it recognised the importance of starting the journey in this direction and it was able to do so before any private provider filled that gap, as in the UK.
So we think this is a good news story about the innovation at the Victorian Bar. It is happening where it needs to and when it needs to. The response is being led by the institution of the Bar itself, and by the market.
But also my individuals. Kyle McDonald has been instrumental in helping barristers and solicitors alike navigate new technologies and evaluate their usefulness for legal practice. If you are starting out using an iPad with the goal of a paperless practice, you can’t go past his guide. Kyle was one of the pioneers using his iPad in Victorian courts back in 2011 and his comprehensive guide, updated in 2015, covers every iPad document management issue you could come across.
And then there are those barristers who are using technology simply to have a great life. Daniel Epstein has established a successful career at the Bar that allows him to travel for over a third of the year. He doesn’t use chambers and works via the cloud from wherever his travels take him, arranging conferences and court appearances for the times he is in Melbourne. He works online 65% of the time while he travels, and solicitors who brief him don’t mind if he settles witness statements from Lonsdale Street or San Francisco. His goal is to use technology to practice law sustainably without the burnout and health issues that plague the profession.
As we’ve said before, the simplest technology, used with imagination, can bring about the biggest and most important changes of all.