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How exactly did an enthusiasm for taekwondo revolutionise how barristers' direct services are advertised to the public? SJ hears from Daniel ShenSmith

27 April 2016

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In my private life, as a fifth dan international martial arts instructor, I receive many requests for one-to-one coaching on training and technique. However, the four
or so hours each week I once volunteered to answer these requests was not enough. I created a YouTube channel to deliver coaching on-demand.
A little over three years later, that channel has now delivered more than 165 years' worth of four-hour weekly coaching to students worldwide.

Now the ShenSmith team
and I are bringing the same innovation and leverage to clients on behalf of the Bar - cue www.shensmithbarristers.co.uk, which provides direct access barrister services. Sunil Rupasinha and Stephen Harvey QC of 1 Gray's Inn Square were among the first barristers to lend their expert advice and guidance to the ShenSmith Barristers video library. The videos provide unprecedented access to experts' guidance anytime, anywhere - breaking down barriers that have prevented contact with some of the Bar's top practitioners.

Having seen their videos, clients happily travel miles across the country, confident in their choice of barrister, as they have already 'met' them online. Technology fans the flames of innovation, and we and many other new models are taking advantage of it to make expert advice from the Bar more accessible than ever before.

Meeting of the minds

Ofcom research shows 66 per cent of adults and 90 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds own a smartphone; the 'live-feed' lifestyle is engaging and contagious. Concurrently, while around one-third of adults have used a legal service in the last two years, only 1 per cent used
a barrister, according to the Bar Standards Board's (BSB) 'Risk Outlook' report. I predict the rapid growth of technology
and innovation is going to swell this figure dramatically in the coming years.

Twitter, to name but one social media platform, proves a vibrant hub for all, where businesses and members of the public have real-time access to nuggets of legal news and can contact barristers, chambers, and the Bar Council themselves, directly from their smartphone. Clients with seven-figure claims have found direct access barristers after reading the ShenSmith Twitter feed; it has never been so simple for people to feel at ease when reaching out to a barrister for advice.

But not everyone's questions are answered on a Twitter feed or a website; some would simply prefer to speak in person - but often avoid doing so for fear of costs. On their behalf, I was impressed to see that for those who were hesitant to speak to a lawyer, the Bar Council came to them. For example, the Federation of Small Businesses conference provided a lively yet informal setting where businesses could approach the Bar Council exhibition stand and ask anything they wanted about accessing a barrister's services; equally, at a Citizens Advice conference it reached out to members of the public as part
of a nationwide effort to open
its doors.

There are three important elements when it comes to accessing the legal sector as a business or member of the public:

  • Understanding when it is necessary to seek formal advice and/or representation;

  • Choosing an appropriate professional - considering both expertise and credibility; and

  • Understanding and being comfortable with the likely costs and fee structure of the services.

Interestingly, these elements have been discussed in significant detail in the BSB report. Through the concerted efforts described above, the Bar is already on the right track to addressing the first two elements, leaving only the discussion of costs.

Complicated costs

Costs must be predictable wherever possible - no business can, or should, sign a blank cheque. Entering an open-ended agreement is not congruent with sound business principles, and is reckless. My perception of providing legal services for a long time was that it was not only likely to be expensive, but that it was also likely to be unpredictable. The BSB report quotes statistics that support the popular assumption that legal advice is expensive, and while it does not specifically state them as such, it goes some way to discussing potential solutions to the predictability factor. This of course includes fixed costs and the unbundling of services, which many chambers already offer.

ShenSmith works closely with many barristers and chambers, and every piece of work or representation is offered on a fixed-fee basis, so that the client knows precisely what the costs are before committing. We also work with many solicitors in this way - breaking up the legal advice into 'chunks' of work that are much more predictable and financially manageable for the client, while maintaining an independent choice of barrister via direct access.

The Bar has already changed a lot in recent years and, with the rate of change linked to the growth of technology, there are fast-paced, innovative years ahead.

Daniel ShenSmith is co-founder of ShenSmith Barristers @SSBarristers www.shensmithbarristers.co.uk 

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