Mention it softly but the dreaded pandemic has definitely blown a few corporate cobwebs away in the last 18 months. The drastic and sudden way in which businesses had to try to adapt has forced us all to take a good look at how we do everything, thereby speeding up change.
Implementing change and quickly are two concepts that may not always be associated with barristers' chambers. The last few months have, however, seen Gatehouse Chambers embrace both wholeheartedly and definitely for the better. This article looks at our recent innovations and the changes we have made to the way in which we are operating. It focuses on particular steps we have taken rather than looking at those in which the entire legal industry has been involved (eg online seminars and recordings). We hope thereby not only to offer some thoughts for others to consider but also to encourage the legal market to continue the trend towards a more rigorous, value-based approach to instructing lawyers, the aim being to encourage much greater equality, diversity and inclusion ("EDI") within the legal profession.
Immediately prior to the pandemic we were in the process of deciding what to do when the lease on our previous premises in Lincoln's Inn came up for renewal. Hardwicke Building had served us very well for many years and it is in a prime location in the heart of one of the four Inns of Court. However, the building required such major renovation that we would have to move out in order to enable that work to be undertaken. Just before lockdown, a newly refurbished and extended building in Gray's Inn came on the market. Investigation established that a move to Gray's Inn offered the perfect solution for us: the chance to rethink completely everything about our operation – space planning, workplace surveys, barrister rooms, staff facilities, client service provision – you name it, we reviewed it.
Whilst this represented an enormous undertaking, it has allowed us to "think outside the box". We have always been known (and certainly like to think we are known) for our forward-thinking, modern approach to barristers providing legal services to clients. Moving to 1 Lady Hale Gate has given us the opportunity not only to rethink fundamentally every aspect of our service to clients but also to implement those changes, picking up on all the new developments in technology and ways of working. It showcases a number of innovative ways of working for barristers and staff as well as catering for clients' requirements:
- Some may be surprised to hear that we were looking for more office space rather than less. Whilst many businesses have been downsizing, it was clear from our surveys both before and during the pandemic that this was not what we or our clients wanted. The ability to provide the facilities to run large meetings, arbitrations, mediations and online court hearings is something which is increasingly attractive to clients and therefore critical for expanding our business. Offering those services requires not just physical room but also the staff to ensure everything runs smoothly including the IT and catering.
- Having a Midtown location near the courts remains important for us as a barristers' chambers, even though barristers travel far and wide to court destinations. A central base enables us to be a hub for clients, both domestically and internationally.
- Flexibility, a post-pandemic byword, has been key to how we have rethought client service in our new building. For example, we are now able to accommodate, with ease and state of the art technology, online court and tribunal hearings, arbitration and mediations. We have had the benefit of the refit to design the whole building to do just this: rooms that can be expanded, modern cabling, soundproofing, ceiling microphones.
- Provision for barristers and staff has also been designed so as to promote well-being as well as productivity. We all have sit/stand desks. Laptops and docking stations have replaced bulky PCs, enabling all those using the building to work in any work space as well as at home. Break out rooms, work pods and hot desks as well as a prayer/quiet room are all features of the new space.
We appreciate that we have had the advantage of the "blank canvas" of a new building and a commitment to major investment to implement all these changes.
Developing a new building has not been our only major innovation. Our move to Gray's Inn was accompanied by a change of name – from Hardwicke to Gatehouse Chambers. Changing a corporate name is never undertaken lightly. Alongside the risk that all the goodwill built up in the previous name will be lost or severely affected, the costs are considerable, whatever the size of the organisation. So why did we do it?
Following the #BlackLivesMatter protests in 2020, legal bloggers drew our attention to the fact that that our previous building was named after Lord Hardwicke, a prominent former judge and 18th century Lord Chancellor. He was one of the authors of the Yorke/Talbot opinion which was relied upon for many years by slave owners as providing legal justification for slavery. To perpetuate that legacy by taking the name with us was unthinkable. In a move consistent with our values as a modern organisation, we took the decision to change name.
Despite the enormity of the issues relating to a change of name, that decision was a straightforward one as it directly underlies our published values. We have also adopted a Gatehouse Chambers Charter which provides for the practical application of an intersectional approach to inclusion in a professional context. This is an innovative step for a barristers' chambers.
Clients are increasingly interested in chambers which not only talk the talk but walk the walk on EDI, and it is often an important factor in tendering for work (as clients in turn also have to demonstrate). This is clear from the support we have had from existing clients, the new clients we have acquired and the interest we have engendered in the legal market flowing from our change of name and our public statement of the values under which we operate.
We believe that those using barristers' chambers are increasingly looking to ensure that those chambers they would like to instruct are actively championing the values which professional law firms are promoting with their own clients .
"Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!"
This article was published in the PSMG magazine. You can see a full copy of the magazine here.
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