The benefits of direct access: a client's perspective

6 August 2015

                                Daniel ShenSmith

                        Daniel J ShenSmith,  Co-founder - ShenSmith Barristers


We launched ShenSmith Barristers to lead positive changes in the provision of legal services, with lay clients' needs at the heart of our operation. Clients want to hear from, and deal directly with barristers, and we provide the platform to make it possible.

Herein is a real account of our experience as clients, the legal system, and why it lead to us setting up ShenSmith Barristers to help those who found themselves in the same position.

Anyone who has experienced a legal dispute, of any nature, will attest to it being a rather unpleasant experience.  Such is the nature of any formal dispute; arguments and accusations are thrown about wildly and often unjustly between the parties. Every fact and figure, action or inaction, event or happenstance is called into scrutiny. Even personal values and historic intentions are questioned whilst the facts of the story are mapped out. 

From a client's point of view, the legal system is there to provide protection, access to justice, a process through which a just decision can be reached, and suitable remedies or sanctions as appropriate. 

So who does one turn to for help in the legal hour of need? 

For the vast majority of the general public and SMEs, litigation can be an overwhelmingly daunting and often prohibitively expensive process to follow. 

I was just 20 years old when I first needed legal assistance for my fledgling technology business, opening my eyes for the first time to the process of becoming a client, and the first set-back in my entrepreneurial journey. 

A web development company had billed me more than ten thousand pounds for source code, despite it being 'open source' which means it is freely available to download, use and modify. When I objected to the bill, I was threatened with court action and a winding-up petition against my new company for non-payment of something that was essentially downloaded for free from a third party website, for which they had no licence to resell. 

I arranged an appointment at a very respectable firm of solicitors and explained my case. I was advised that a simple letter firmly setting out my position should quickly draw an end to the dispute, as there really was no merit for such a claim against me. The letter worked and the web company backed off. It was a short and rather expensive affair, albeit a successful one. 

It was some years later that I needed legal assistance for another company I had created, and the issues were far more complex. This time we were faced with a dilemma: do we use a specialist firm of solicitors (with barrister's fees charged on top), which was going to be prohibitively expensive to see the case through to conclusion, or a much smaller 'high street' firm of solicitors, likely to have little to no experience in handling such cases. 

Time was of the essence and deadlines for correspondence left us little time for indecision. We started out with the local firm, but very quickly realised that not only was the case too complex for them, but often we were only ever able to speak to an assistant, trainee or intern with almost no knowledge about the case, leaving us in a constant state of worry for months on end. 

At the height of despair, a friend suggested that we look into Direct Access to the Bar and that it may be more suitable for our needs. The transition was awkward, but ultimately our solicitors understood and accepted our position. From this point on we were Direct Access clients, with a leading QC and a second barrister of almost twenty years' experience heading up our case. 

We arranged a conference in chambers to go through our bundle and form a strategy. Despite the stressful nature of the situation, it was a comforting and fascinating experience to watch 'our' barristers bounce ideas between each other, finish each other's sentences and answer our questions before we even finished asking them. They concluded that our case was strong, the law supported our position and we now had a solid plan. 

In the following weeks, whenever we had a question or concern, the barristers were a simple phone call, email or text message away, promptly replying to every one of them; nothing was too much trouble and we had immediate clarification and reassurance. I recall replying to an email on Christmas day after our barristers had another idea that would help us. Our case had become theirs, and we felt protected. All the while knowing that our fees were fixed and we were not 'on the clock'. 

We came to think of Direct Access as a way to tap into barristers' services as and when we needed them, for fixed costs and rapid response. It ticked all of the boxes we needed as clients, and removed the ambiguities. 

Why did more people not know about Direct Access? It was still a relatively new provision in the marketplace and not all barristers were qualified to deal directly with the public. 

Being an entrepreneur, I am passionate about bringing great ideas to market, and here I could help many more people benefit from Direct Access, as we had. We launched BarristerDirect.co.uk as an informational website to deliver the concept of Direct Access to our existing business clients. The response from our database was very positive and encouraging; we were making a positive difference in the lives of people like us who needed legal advice, with excellent feedback, right from the very first client we introduced to Direct Access: 

     "Thank you so much for your help, wish I had found you sooner" - Val Dexter 

We expanded our efforts and launched ShenSmith Barristers to give barristers a platform to talk about their work. We began creating videos with our barristers to help lay clients understand how Direct Access can help them, and in what cases it would be a suitable route. 

By incorporating new technologies, we are able to conduct operations and connect clients to barristers within an hour, even if the client or barrister is overseas. In one case the client was in Spain and had been made aware of a court hearing at the very last minute, literally on the day of the hearing. We arranged a live video conference with a London based barrister within an hour, who then turned up to represent the client that afternoon. On another occasion, the client's choice of barrister was trekking in India, but managed to find WiFi and make contact with the client. 

Our latest initiative offers businesses and members of the public a free legal surgery with one of our barristers, to help identify areas where a barrister's services may help them in resolving any questions or issues they may have. 

This is a new era for legal services; the introduction of Direct Access to the Bar was a truly revolutionary step, offering the client a much wider choice as to who their legal adviser is, swift and direct contact with their barrister at any reasonable hour, and the ability to fix their fees in advance to avoid any ambiguity over costs. 

We will continue to help lay clients reduce the stress, pain and vulnerability they feel during their legal battles, and eliminate any unnecessary costs. We are very excited about what the future can bring to this industry, and are very pleased to be a part of it.

 

Daniel J ShenSmith
Co-founder - ShenSmith Barristers