Mike Hughes finds out how Tim Coulson divides his time between inspiration and litigation.
Tim Coulson may well be the epitome of transferrable skills. From full-time in publishing to full time in law, Tim’s management skills have been in demand for more than 30 years - and as director of the New Park Court Chambers in Leeds and at Newcastle they are on the finest form.
With 69 barristers including 10 QCs, to look after, Tim’s calm experience earns him the respect and trust his position needs. It has been honed from an endless series of situations to handle large teams of staff to manage and targets to hit.
At BQ Yorkshire, we look for entrepreneurial DNA. If you have it you will come up with that big idea and you will have the drive to take it to market. But it’s a bit more challenging to discuss whether you are born capable of a high-profile manager, or whether you have to go through the experiences to learn the craft.
“I had known the chief executive here for some time, from my role running the commercial wing of the Bar Council,” Tim tells me at the chamber’s stately offices in Park Place, Leeds. “He was coming to take over the chambers from London, and was as peripatetic as I was, so I had welcomed him to Yorkshire and he knew he could talk chambers with someone who wasn’t connected with it.
“He asked me to come in and help for three months. I think that happened because, from the Bar Council work, I knew barristers and how they operated, but could come in and do a project for them without being part of the furniture.
“I think that distance is important. I have a saying that a barrister would trust his brain surgeon and his plumber to do their job – but they believe they can do everything else in between. They are incredibly bright people, but I appreciate that the job of support staff in chambers is akin to every other role in the theatre other than acting.
“We set the scene for them, make sure the wardrobe is right, and make sure they are in the right theatre at the right time. The challenge is to convince them you can do all those other things – and the finance, IT, office space, staffing and so on - so they can go out there and do Law.”
The ease with which Tim selects and delivers these descriptions tells us two things. One is that he has needed to explain his role and that of the chamber on many occasions and over time has trimmed down his library of choices to a few favourite volumes.
But also, it portrays him as a man confident in his status. He can step away and analyse the profession and even gently poke fun at it because he has the highest regard for the people who work in the building and knows he has earned a place among them.
Chambers are effectively a co-operative or collective. The members are all proudly independent practitioners, who do not want their own support staff and building to run so, logically, they group together and employ a single team. Barristers can move between chambers and chambers can bring in new members, usually depending on what they can add to the existing set of skills.
“A more traditional set of chambers would be reliant on a senior clerk and a team working for him or her. It was more about law and less about business, because some chambers would say they are a profession, not a business.
“These people are all independent practitioners, clever, assertive and confident. They have all those skills, but when they are doing their work, they might ask nine questions to set up the tenth. I see this as their funnel pointing downwards, towards that crucial question. A business funnel is the other way around, always looking for the wider context.”
Tim sits in the middle of that hour-glass, pulling together all the outside elements, distils it and shares it with his legal professionals to enable them to do their job. The balance of tact, diplomacy and authority required can only be imagined, but these are principles Tim has been working with for many years and media, law or any other sector in the county will see their value.
There is a joke along the lines of ‘how many barristers does it take to change a lightbulb?’ to which the punchline is ‘what does change mean?’. The system has to maintain its integrity and history while relying on its chamber to help it evolve. “I had reached a personal position in my career in newspapers where I was effectively representing the industry as commercial manager of the Newspaper Society,” explains Tim.“I was not sure if I was being asked for my personal opinion or that of my position.
“The only way I could think of testing that was to resign my position and say ‘I am no longer this – but I am still me’. I took up a number of projects for newspaper groups where I told people I would come in and look at a situation and make a series of recommendations.
“But the USP would be that I would be prepared to deliver those recommendations from within the organisation. It was my way of standing by what I thought and as this happened my periods of consultancy became longer and longer.”
The Bar Council role soon came his way as a one-year contract to turn around its commercial enterprise operation. After four years he turned down the chance to stay longer because he believed that it might benefit from having another person in the role with the same outsider’s view that Tim had when he first started.
“I am blessed now with being able to maintain a very independent voice in that I can still deliver professional integrity while not being part of the furniture. I am happy that I am allowed to be me.” This independence and capacity to challenge is not, of course, the sole right of experienced senior staff like Tim.
All entrepreneurs seek it from the beginning, and it is a key part of a new business’s infrastructure that the right to have a loud enough voice is maintained. The early confidence of launching a brand gives that voice a natural volume, but it still needs to be heard one year, two years and three years down the line. If it is as listened to and respected as Tim Coulson’s after a few decades, things are going well.
But it is clear that there is still ink in the Coulson veins. After six years at Thomson and three years at the Newspaper Society, discovering that he is now helping with a very personal project called What Could I Be? which aims to inspires careers and employability options for 11-13 year olds by engaging with them through a distributed and themed publication that aims to be available nationwide. Every 12-year-old in Scotland has already received three editions and the launch edition (suitably, it covered law and society) is already out in Yorkshire.
“In the transition from primary to secondary, there is a fixation about what subjects they will be studying and what options there are. Children are often encouraged to aim for a secure job doing something they know about, but we mustn’t tell them what they are going to be before they have even had a chance to think about it
“We wanted to get the concept into the minds of young people that it is OK to have ideas. We want to engage with kids before work experience programmes, which can be of varying quality. “I think it is a worthy thing and we are totally committed to its lovely creative process.
“For a time I was privy to the world of academia via my partner Jane’s work. She was researching access to the workplace and found gender stereotyping was a huge barrier. As with many barriers, it can be so big nothing happens except research and reports. Such an approach was not our style and using our common experience in media and as entrepreneurs we decided to take some action.
“Three things became very clear.
One: there is no structured starting point for information about jobs and careers for young people and their parents when they start secondary school.
Two: we don’t talk about ideas and the value of thinking about lots and lots of things to young people.
Three: Business people can bring careers ideas to life with their knowledge so we can deliver ideas with achievable realities.
“The best thing about WCIB is the community of members we are building. We use their fees to pay for the printing and distribution and their knowledge to fuel the content. It’s a win, win for everyone.”
The aspirations of WCIB present him with a perfect balance for life at New Park Court, it keeps the media section of his brain active, but there is also a commendable paternal side to it for him, using those years of experience to educate and encourage. It’s a work-life balance to be proud of.