Aparna Bundro is Director of Practice Development for DesVoeux Chambers in Hong Kong. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, she explains how her background as a lawyer helped her transition into legal marketing and business development, the difference between marketing for a barrister’s chambers versus a commercial law firm, DesVoeux Chambers marketing and business development strategy, including a re-design of the firm website, thought leadership and CSR initiatives, and the current state of marketing and business development for barristers chambers.
Your background is as a lawyer. How would you describe the transition from legal practice to practice development? And how did practising as a solicitor help prepare you for Practice Development?
Practising as a solicitor gives you credibility and an inherent understanding of the goals barristers are trying to achieve. It makes their long and short-term objectives relatable and realizable.
A combination of experience mined from being a solicitor and a business development professional hard-wires you with a design thinking approach that is needed to empathize with how barristers and clients think and behave.
Parachuting in at a time when there was no infrastructure on the ground in this role was a refreshing challenge and it gave us a blank canvass to sketch out and formulate new initiatives and originate strategy.
I pivoted to BD at a time when the ‘more for less’ challenge was its zenith. My shift from private practice to business development was propelled by an interest in how client relationships and the delivery of legal services were changing. Following the 2008 crisis, there was a surge in the accessibility of alternative legal service providers, increasing liberalization, and a dawning recognition on the part of clients that it was a buyers’ market characterized by higher demand for better value. In many ways the disruption that took place led to the creation of this role, in 2017, and since then there has been a growing groundswell of interest in PD at Chambers, and we have seen other Chambers in HK who have followed suit by implementing similar roles.
Taking on a PD role has enabled me to be at the vanguard of industry change. It has also facilitated my goal of working more closely with clients and being able to interact with clients across a swathe of different industries.
This role serves to dismantle the myths surrounding the difficulty formerly associated with a PD function in Chambers. Some of the barriers that prevent barristers from interacting directly with lay clients do not apply to my function. As a PD Director you supply the connective tissue that clients need to access our barristers given that the Bar Code of Conduct prohibits direct access (with some exceptions – see below.)
Given that this is a pioneering role in HK, we have had an opportunity to put the architecture in place with a view to moving the needle on how PD in Chambers is carried out. And this has been extremely rewarding.
You focus on practice development for Des Voeux Chambers – a Barristers’ Chambers in Hong Kong. How is practice development different between a Barristers’ chambers and a commercial law firm?
For starters, Practice Development for a HK Chambers was a green-field site prior to 2017. This was a first of a kind role and we have been fortunate to secure first mover advantage in this space.
In law firms, business development is a membrane over the company: this is not the case with HK sets.
Given that the Bar Code of Conduct strictly regulates the parameters for practice promotion, we take a more restrained approach to marketing; an example of this is the title of the department, Practice Development versus Business Development/Marketing/Communications or PR, which you would routinely see at law firms.
Barristers are of course independent and this means that they work for themselves. They are not separated/siloed by practice areas either, so there are no delineated sector groups; something you would commonly find at law firms.
There is also no ‘direct access’ or rather there is licenced access. What this means is that the Bar retains its role as a referral institution in Hong Kong. This means that clients’ access to a barrister usually requires a solicitor, the Director of Legal Aid or the Government. There are however some exceptions to the general rule, and barristers may accept instructions directly from recognized institutions. They can also act, without the involvement of a solicitor, as third party neutrals in alternative dispute resolution procedures e.g. as mediators, adjudicators, barristers or umpires.
From a PD perspective, this means the solicitor or in-house/general counsel is the client. We therefore gear our PD around solicitors and not lay clients. Barristers are precluded from touting or soliciting for work. In terms of marketing, this means we do not make pitches to clients; we need to think of creative initiatives that do not involve touting. We also shy away from hyperbole to describe members and refrain from using expressions like best of breed. The guiding principle is that statements made need to be “objectively verifiable.”
This is a notable difference between Chambers and law firms.
In addition, barristers are not precluded from working on opposite sides of the same dispute as their peers from the same Chambers, and treat privilege and confidentiality seriously.
How would you describe the overall business development and marketing strategy of Des Voeux Chambers?
Our overriding goals include winning new work, elevating profiles and strengthening brand recognition. The momentum we have developed has yielded positive returns and has exceeded many of the goals we initially set out to achieve.
We build our value proposition around the strengths of DVC’s barristers and DVC’s brand in the market. This includes the fact that DVC offers a full spectrum/full suite of services and the fact that we are the largest set of Chambers in Hong Kong.
In a landscape that necessitates shifting priorities around core issues and a new focus on ‘stakeholder capitalism,’ versus Freidman’s ‘shareholder capitalism’, it is increasingly important to benchmark social and environmental issues, and this is in part what drove us to start our CSR campaign last year.
You helped Des Voeux Chambers showcase its barristers’ expertise by updating the website design. What was involved in the strategy and creation of this re-design?
The input that went into redesigning the website was a perfect storm of the injection of innovative ideas and the preservation of traditional elements which culminated in the build-out and the ultimate revamp of our website. We included drone footage and infographics. We also deployed videos and podcasts. These have been effective as concentration spans have shrunk and as visuals are the preferred touchstone for consuming information.
The overall effect has been to bring Chambers into the 21st century(!) It’ll be interesting to see how the marketing dynamic shifts over time, now that we’ve hit the roaring ‘20s.
You helped elevate DVC’s barristers’ profiles via a series of thought leadership campaigns and promotion through major legal directories and platforms. What are some examples of this success?
In less than 3 years, we’ve been able to demonstrate that PD can act as a lever of change in Chambers. One of the ways we have done this is by appearing in the Financial Times APAC Innovation shortlist in 2019. DVC’s PD department was shortlisted for Innovation in the Business of Law: New Business & Service Delivery Models from over 500 submissions across Asia and Australia.
In December 2019, DVC monopolized the Up & Coming sector of the Chambers & Partners Directory Rankings for 2019-2020. This meant that DVC had the highest number of barristers appearing at the most junior end, compared to the other Chambers in HK. This is a testament to the high level of advocacy, ambition and maturity that can be found at the junior end of DVC. Directories are especially important for barristers given that they act as a credible source of referral for solicitors/in-house counsel when deciding whom to instruct, vital when bearing in mind that barristers can’t promote in the same way as solicitors.
Following the roll out of our newsletter, a leading online legal research provider asked to partner with us to showcase our content on an exclusive basis. This translates into greater exposure and higher engagement for our members on a regional level.
The PD department also launched an external think-tank to generate new ideas, piloted CSR drives and enabled our female members to join mentorship programmes as mentors for young women aspiring to be lawyers. These have been effective from a Diversity and Inclusion standpoint.
Despite the backdrop of the protests, we had a year on year increase in the number of RFPs and the number of attendees at DVC’s events.
You’ve helped spearhead corporate social responsibility (CSR) drives for Des Voeux Chambers in Hong Kong. What are some of these CSR initiatives and what has been their impact?
One of the ways we were able to make a positive social impact was through the launch of our first CSR drive last year. In 2019 we partnered with HK’s Bring Me A Book Foundation.
The benefits were unexpected. Not only did the provision of a new library promote reading for under-served children, several of our members took time to read to and interact with the children via rewarding story-telling sessions. The outreach programme also instilled a sense of community spirit. This sent a message to the wider community that DVC is invested in philanthropy and purpose. It additionally served to strengthen our relationship with clients, reinforce our brand and demonstrate a commitment to worthy causes. 88% of Gen Y believe in giving back to the community through work (according to Forbes) so in terms of talent retention, this also shores up the desirability of working at DVC.
Separately, DVC’s Founding Chair, Daniel Fung SC founded an NGO in 2019 called Cambridge Global Conversations. This platform addresses and provides solutions for man’s greatest existential challenges including the climate crisis, the advent of AI (which could lead to the obsolescence of employment) resource scarcity and unchecked migration. The conversations are held via social media and through various global conferences and act as catalysts for change for a broad audience involving millions.
Where are we in the process of modernization of marketing and business development for barristers’ chambers?
Barristers are traditionally conservative and risk-averse, but more progressive attitudes and forward-thinking initiatives including our recent Legal Tech Forum and our CSR drives are enabling DVC’s barristers to become more T-shaped. I believe that PD, heightened competition, changing client demands, a tech pervasive landscape and the need to up-skill are some of the drivers behind this.
Hong Kong has not gone quite as far as London in terms of their more liberalized referral structures.
However, as orthodox as barristers’ chambers are, in some ways, they are at the cutting-edge of the legal profession. This is because the self-employed structure lends itself quite naturally to the current ‘gig’ economy. It blends the efficiencies of independence, self-employment and human capital.
Ultimately, PD has facilitated easier access for solicitors and in-house counsel and as our ROI indicates, it has been a compelling motivator for choosing DVC. It represents a powerful offering from a client’s perspective because it addresses common pain-points and aids the decision-making process for solicitors when determining who to instruct.