A set of Chambers is not set up in the same way as a law firm or solicitors’ practice. Each barrister is a self-employed sole practitioner and they and the other barristers in the set do not form a partnership as solicitors do. Individual barristers are known as tenants or Members of Chambers.
There are not many sets of Chambers in England & Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have slightly different systems). The Bar Council (the governing body for barristers) in their most recent statistics said there were just over 400 sets of Chambers, some of which contained only one or a handful of barristers.
A set of Chambers is best described as a shared office, populated by the barristers (who are customers of the Chambers entity and not employees) and support staff (who are employed by the Chambers entity). The Members of Chambers share the expenses of running the set (rent, staff, IT & communications and the like), but do not share their individual profits. There is no set way of raising the money to cover expenditure and this can vary from set to set, but most frequently it is calculated as a percentage of each barrister’s income or as a fixed amount plus a percentage.
The management structure of most sets consists of an elected Head of Chambers and an elected Management Committee (sometimes called ManCom, or The Board), with additional sub-committees dealing with recruitment, pupillage and strategy etc.
Reporting to the Management Committee will be the most senior member of staff. Usually this will be the Senior Clerk (in effect the CEO of Chambers), but some sets also operate with a Chief Executive or Chambers Director. Again, the exact set up varies from set to set and in all but the largest sets, the Senior Clerk is responsible for overseeing and running the operations of the Chambers. Some sets with a Chief Executive will have a Senior Clerk above a Chief Executive, others might have the reverse. However, it is rare for a Chief Executive to operate in the way a Chief Executive would in any other industry, as it is the barristers (via the Management Committee), who like to make sure they make all the important decisions (as well as non-important decisions on occasions!).
The Clerks (often these days called Practice Managers) manage the barristers diaries, agree their fees, deal with business development and generally advice and mentor Members of Chambers. At times it can be difficult to determine who is the boss of who, as it will be the Clerks who will autonomously run the diary and tell the barrister which cases they should do (and frequently the Clerk will have sourced that work through their relationship with a solicitor client), but it is a poor Clerk who forgets their place and abuses that situation and their position of trust.
Many years ago, when Chambers were much smaller, the Clerk would perform all of the support functions as well as managing the barristers’ practices: administration; fee collection; marketing (such as it was) and running the Chambers’ accounts. In all but the smallest sets, these roles are now undertaken by people who have particular skillsets in each of these areas, leaving the Clerks to focus on practice management and finding work for their barristers. Usually, the more senior Clerks will have worked their way up the clerking ladder in different sets, but those occupying administrative, financial and marketing roles will more often than not have joined from other industries, with transferrable skills that can be adapted to the unusual organism that is a set of chambers.
Because each barrister is a self-employed individual, it is not unusual for two or more barristers in the same set to be instructed for different parties in a case (or, in a criminal case, for the prosecution and the defence), particularly when the set specialises in a niche area. In these circumstances, different Clerks will then be selected to only work for each of the barristers involved in that case, providing an “information barrier” which protects each parties interests.