An increasing number of lawyers are choosing a specialist MBA route. Kathy Harvey reports

When Martin Griffiths, a barrister's clerk for over 30 years, packed up the office equipment and moved from the Inns of Court in London to spanking new offices down the road, it marked a break with centuries of tradition. "It was," he cheerfully admits, "like going from Rumpole of the Bailey to LA Law in one fell swoop." The world of the barristers' chambers is not usually associated with cutting-edge management practices - but Horace Rumpole, the dishevelled barrister portrayed in John Mortimer's stories of legal life, might be surprised by the attempts his real-life counterparts are making to enter the 21st century.

It is now a year since Griffiths completed a legal MBA at Nottingham Trent University, and it's a qualification he is keen to promote for barristers and solicitors, as well as those who administer their firms. "I'd picked up a lot in my career in legal management, but I felt I needed a more formal structure to help me make sense of the big issues at work."

As chairman of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks, he is keen to point out that the stereotype of the clerk, as an all-powerful keeper of the barrister's client list, is far from the truth. The fact that he is now titled business development director is an indicator that times have certainly changed. "The whole legal environment has altered, for administrators and lawyers," he says. "Thirty years ago things were much more personal but now I am dealing with everything from human resources to regulations on money laundering."

Senior lawyers are, Griffiths says, owners of their own businesses and need to have a role in running their own show. The promotion of the MBA as a qualification will encourage a professional approach. "Since completing the course, I feel I have a greater understanding of the way things happen. Why some things work and others don't." The organisational psychology modules of the MBA were, he says, particularly useful. "Motivating everyone to work together is a challenge for any business, but perhaps more so in barristers' chambers."

Denise Crawford, who runs the programme, says many lawyers find it hard at first to focus on business and finance. Thinking across disciplines after years of studying detail is also a challenge. "For some, it is a revolution to start understanding that their own firm is a business with similar management issues to other companies. The profile of course applicants is, she says, changing. "I've noticed an increase in the number of students in their late twenties or early thirties. They see the MBA as a way of furthering their careers, whether they are high-street solicitors or corporate lawyers."

Not all lawyers are choosing a specialist MBA route. Rob Bratby, 34, completed a part-time MBA with Henley Management College last year and believes that studying with managers from outside legal circles helped to widen his horizons. "When I started the course I was an in-house company lawyer and thought the MBA would send a signal to the management that I was interested in how the business worked as a whole."

Bratby is now helping to set up the UK practice of an American law firm, specialising in telecommunications regulation. "The MBA has been a great confidence boost. Having general management skills means I understand how to take the business forward." The ability to promote promote something, even in a narrow field, is, he says, not something legal training focuses on. "Sometimes, when I talk about selling, colleagues look at me blankly. Marketing yourself can be seen as a bit grubby, but lawyers aren't sitting in ivory towers dispensing advice."

Lawyers who have already completed an undergraduate degree and law school might be forgiven for thinking that an MBA is a qualification too far, especially as many of them continue with professional exams well into their careers. Karen Battersby, a qualified solicitor who now teaches at both Henley and Nottingham Trent University and doesn't see this as an issue which is likely to deter people in future. "Law firms, particularly in the City of London, are growing in complexity. The pressure is huge and they have to be able to manage people properly. Being able to interpret law and handle a case won't be enough."

It won't be enough either, for clerks or administrators to start on the ladder and rely on the wisdom of an older generation to steer them through their careers. Matrix Chambers, where Cherie Booth practises as a barrister, has gone further than many of its competitors by appointing an MBA graduate from London Business School - not as its clerk but as the more grandly titled Chief Executive of the chambers.

Nick Martin, who had worked as a management consultant in both the public and private sector before answering an advertisement in a newspaper for his current job, says the title barrister's clerk is being replaced by the more modern - though less evocative - practice manager or assistant in many modern legal practices. And he is not ashamed to mention the word "marketing" in legal circles. "There is a sense in which some lawyers see marketing and related services as a cost that takes away from profits, rather than something critical to the health of the business. As an MBA graduate with general management experience, I know this isn't true."

Matrix Chambers, like many of its competitors, is a substantial business with over 20 support staff and 47 practising barristers on its books. The annual turnover last year was £9.2m. "There are so many issues, from health and safety to managing computer systems and even developing corporate identity for the chambers. I think of an MBA as being good professional training for a job like this." As chief executive, he is looking at ways of developing management programmes for some of the most senior people within the business, perhaps adapting some of the modules from MBA courses. Management, like it or not, is on the agenda for barristers and clerks alike. "This is the way forward. Rumpole of the Bailey is on the way out."

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