2020 will be seen by historians as a year of disruption and seismic change but also a year of new beginnings. Nationally we were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic with its lockdowns and necessary changes to the way in which business was conducted. The Brexit saga finally ended and we left the EU at the end of the year.
During that year I wrote about the likely effect of these changes on the Bar in an article entitled COVID 19: What’s in store for the Bar? that appeared in the October 2020 edition of The Barrister magazine. It was obvious that with court and tribunal appearances and office-based work either not permitted or made more difficult by the pandemic, this type of working would move rapidly on-line. This move to WFH (working from home) and WFA (working from anywhere) happened remarkably quickly and in many cases almost seamlessly.
As Central London suffered an extinction event and became a ghost town, what became obvious very quickly was that Zoom and other software systems had become sufficiently advanced that “in person” attendance either in Chambers or in court was no longer necessary. The costs savings associated with this move on-line were potentially huge not only in terms of the rent that could be saved on bricks and mortar offices but also in avoiding travelling time and costs.
For the Bar and particularly the Tax Bar, this disruption made itself felt as follows:
- The rapid shift by the courts and tribunals to on-line hearings using electronic document bundles with such virtual hearings being announced by the First-tier tax tribunal as the default format for the future
- Webinars replaced in-person attendance at tax seminars so that 300 plus could attend effortlessly instead of say, a maximum of 120 people travelling some distance and crowding into a draughty hall with dodgy acoustics to view a distant speaker behind a lectern beside a shaky slide screen
- Zoom conferences with clients remotely using screen share to review documents instead of clients travelling often some distance to crowd into a meeting room
For most of human history, cities have been the cauldrons in which most technical and societal advances occurred because such advances were dependent upon people physically crowding together and discussing and exchanging ideas. The London coffee houses of the 17th and 18th century, for example, led to the existence of The Stock Exchange, The Bank of England and Lloyd’s. For the first time in human history, 2020 showed us that physical association was no longer necessary. For the first time in history, people could meet and discuss all manner of business on-line effectively and efficiently using the myriad ways that the internet allows. This in my view is a profound change in human existence that has yet to be properly understood and will lead to fundamental changes in societies and the way that humans organise themselves and whether cities will retain their importance in the future.
From my perspective as a busy barrister and looking at these developments I asked myself why retain an expensive set of bricks and mortar chambers in Lincoln’s Inn and require the Clerks to commute into it daily only to do the work they were now doing seamlessly on-line. Not only could I not travel into Chambers during much of 2020 but actually there was little need to do so as tribunals and court hearings moved to on-line hearings.
With hearing bundles and other documentation going digital there was also far less physical copying and shuffling of paperwork to do by the Clerks. Conferences with both UK and overseas clients took place effortlessly via Zoom and clients sometimes wondered aloud why this had not happened before now. The ritual of the Clerk shepherding the clients assembled in the waiting room up the stairs to the barrister’s room and then the serving of tea (“Shall I be Mother?”) while quaint was not missed by clients or Clerks alike. While a good Clerk will always be worth their weight in gold to a busy barrister the move to on-line working means that fewer bodies are needed in a virtual clerks’ room. The cost and time savings of all these are huge and can be reflected in lower fees charged to clients.
For all these reasons I conceived and created Cannon Chambers as the first virtual set of tax chambers. Conferences with clients and court and tribunal hearings are conducted so far as possible on-line. There is however still a real person as senior clerk and who will not be replaced even when artificial intelligence is capable of doing the clerking job: firstname.lastname@example.org and conferences can be arranged at the client’s convenience without the need to travel or bring documents. On those occasions when only an in-person meeting with your barrister will do, meetings can be arranged at rooms in Lincoln’s Inn. The rent and other savings and efficiencies that being virtual affords are reflected in the fees charged for work.
I predict that my business model will become the norm formally or informally quite quickly and clients and prospective clients are assured of warm virtual welcome whenever they visit us. We are also open to approaches from other busy and talented barristers who are attracted to virtual life and might wish to join us.
Head and founder of Cannon Chambers