The manner in which a law firm provides legal services is in its greatest state of flux, and shows no sign of abating. While clients look to their legal advisers to provide a high-quality, cost-effective service, some are questioning why firms still frequently retain external counsel. Andrew Cousins, solicitor advocate (civil) in DWF’s advocacy team, discusses how firms can offer a wide-ranging advocacy service for their clients.
My journey into advocacy has been something of a transition. For several years, I worked as a paralegal, legal executive and solicitor in a traditional file handler role. When I moved to a regional firm of solicitors, I began attending court on a more regular basis. I gained experience across a broad base of civil litigation work and started receiving instructions to act as an agent, which in turn piqued my interest in the role of the advocate. I enjoyed the work and took as many opportunities as I could to appear before the court.
I qualified as a solicitor at DWF, and soon began to look at how I could expand my advocacy skills. I completed the higher rights of audience course to obtain my civil qualification, and moved into DWF’s in-house advocacy team to work almost exclusively as an advocate. I now practise almost entirely in the civil field and appear in court four days a week on average. When I’m not in court, I have papers to attend to, drafting to prepare, advice to write, as well as a small number of my own files to run.
At DWF, we have a team of a dozen in-house advocates based at various offices around the country, which enables us to offer an advocacy service to our clients in any court, regardless of geographic location. Some members of the team have joined the firm straight from bar school; some have worked for a short period of time as county court agents; and others are established barristers from the independent bar.
Unusually for an advocacy team, we have a completely internal-facing business model, which is entirely reliant upon DWF’s file handlers instructing us. Our ability to generate fees is dependent on DWF’s ability to offer a cost-efficient and quality advocacy service.
DWF’s file handlers may still instruct the independent bar, and the onus is on us to convince them that we can provide the same level of service as an external chambers. This can be a tough sell, as file handlers often have long-established relationships with chambers or certain counsel, and making inroads into new fields can be challenging.
DWF places no limits on the areas of work in which we can involve ourselves, if we can demonstrate talent and a service offering in a particular field the firm allows us to work in. Our service offering covers all manner of hearings from small claims hearings through to interlocutory hearings, inquests, trials, appeals and detailed assessment hearings, and we are in the process of developing an international ADR project and arbitration offering.
Our ability to provide high-quality advocacy work through an in-house team enables DWF to deliver real cost savings to our clients on a capped or fixed fee, as well as giving the file handlers confidence that their court hearings are being professionally handled.
A significant advantage is our proximity to those who instruct us. We are on hand for brief discussions, ad hoc pieces of advice or a second opinion, which all help build trust in our offering. With timescales in litigation becoming ever tighter and the consequences of non-compliance with directions more serious, the ability to refer a point quickly to an advocate is becoming increasingly important for file handlers and clients.
I firmly believe that there is still a place for the independent bar. Counsel possess different skill sets and undergo different training methods to solicitor advocates, but their involvement can be invaluable in the right cases. For example, I continue to work with counsel on cases requiring multiple layers of expert evidence, or where a leader is appropriate. With the advent of direct access and barristers being able to conduct litigation in their own right, counsel can offer a wider range of services to their clients. But it should not be overlooked that in-house teams can play an equally significant role in offering cost-efficient, proportionate and high quality advocacy services to their clients.