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Why do people still go to solicitors when they could instruct a Direct Access barrister for an upfront fixed fee?

I think it might have something to do with the fact that Messrs Stobart & Co are making their pitch to the public at large.

The trouble is, Direct Access, particularly for Civil cases, is not meant for everybody.

Most clients want to give the lawyer a pile of papers and for them to make “it” go away. This is precisely the role of an attorney – a solicitor. Not a barrister.

Direct Access barristers, on the other hand, need clients who can deal with the day-to-day running of their own case. Clients who can conduct their own litigation. Clients who have the time – and the emotional and intellectual robustness to keep control of their own papers and how they deal with the other side. Clients who are able to retain ownership and responsibility for their own case.

Direct Access “consumers” need to be people who are looking for a (fellow) professional they can work with on their legal project – a legal professional who is brought in to give advice, draft legal documents and/or be their advocate.

So if anybody thought Direct Access would be an adequate substitute for Legal Aid, they need to think again. The truth is, Direct Access is a niche market and only a few will be eligible for my (and indeed anybody’s) Direct Access services.

Most people make initial contact with me via my website or telephone. If I have the availability to consider the project, I generally offer a diagnostic consultation where I meet a prospective client face to face. How a person presents in email and in this hour is a good indication of how they will deal with me after we’ve signed a contract for further services.

Therefore, and in an effort to avoid taking people on as clients who would be better served by a solicitor, I have to make a fairly big judgment call about whether both of us are up to the task and can work together on a particular legal project.

As the key to any successful barrister-solicitor/client relationship is mutual trust and respect, the following are a few warning flags I look for to ascertain if a prospective client and I will be a good match:

  • Do I have the time and professional competence to do good work for this prospective client?
  • Does the prospective client have the time and ability to run their own case?
  • Is the prospective client clear about his/her needs?
  • Does the prospective client have an unrealistic expectation of what we can achieve?
  • Does the prospective client have an already mapped out solution to achieving his goal – and s/he’s just here to use my letterhead?
  • Does the prospective client understand the value I bring to his/her case?
  • Is the prospective client asking me to work for free on their “precedent setting case” in return for CV bragging rights?
  • Is the prospective client ringing after the initial consultation to talk about the detail of his/her case – but reluctant to sign a contract and pay an upfront fixed fee?
  • Is the prospective client name-dropping the top QCs and barristers they’ve instructed in the past?
  • Is the prospective client calling me for “quick advice”?

Any one of the above is a recipe for disaster – from both parties’ point of view. That is why Direct Access barristers are able to accept instructions, at their discretion, direct from members of the public.

Direct Access is a great idea and there are people who will be able to benefit from the quality and cost efficiencies barristers bring to the table.

Having said that, until the day barristers are authorised to conduct litigation – only a limited amount of people will be able to benefit from their Direct Access services. The rest will be better served by seeing a solicitor – and instructing that solicitor to bring in a barrister for specialist advice, advocacy and drafting skills as needed.