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According to many in the legal profession, the amount of work the commercial chancery bar is receiving is in decline. Those most affected by this dearth are, it is said, the most junior tenants - the so-called 'baby juniors'. With limited work at the top end, there is supposedly even less filtering down. No hard data supports this supposition. Rather, it is a market perception.
The reasons cited for this decline in bar work are well documented: solicitors are doing more court work as they now have rights of audience in all English courts; the impact of the Civil Procedure Rules, which require lawyers to find early settlements and, wherever possible, go the alternative dispute resolution route; and the fact that fewer clients today are happy to risk expensive court litigation than they were five years ago.
Yet in August 2004, commercial chancery set Wilberforce Chambers appointed three pupils as tenants: Jonathan Davey, Jonathan Hilliard and Andrew Mold. With most sets traditionally making only one promotion from pupillage to tenancy each year, this was an unusual move. For Wilberforce it was unheard of. The previous year not a single pupil had been promoted to tenancy, and in 2002 just one. In the context of supposedly declining workloads, the arrival of the three barristers appears particularly unusual.
So why the appointments? Solicitors outside London are willing to instruct baby juniors on matters which they are more than capable of doing - drafting particulars of claim, court appearances and advising - and in circumstances where it is more beneficial to use a London barrister than a local one. In addition, using a very junior barrister is often more cost effective than employing either a more senior barrister or a solicitor. Costs are also saved as such juniors are able to do such work without being led and with minimal solicitor guidance.
Solicitors in the capital also instruct baby juniors in similar pieces of work which by nature is intensive, but which often does not take more than a day to complete.
Baby juniors are also a vital backbone of teams of lawyers involved in large-scale commercial litigation. Again, they mostly carry out pleadings, legal research, and prepare skeleton arguments. As well as being more cost effective than employing someone more senior, they are also a useful tool to silks, who may be busy on other complex cases, by virtue of having good all-round knowledge of case documents.
In such commercial cases it is possible that a solicitor may be just as suitable as a baby junior tenant. However, the latter have one unique attribute: their ability to turn their hand to most cases. They are taught this skill during their pupillage, when they are encouraged to practise a range of practice areas within commercial and chancery law. It is not unusual for a baby junior tenant to be capable of taking on trust, financial services, private client, property and tax cases by the time they become tenants.
This enables them to become employable by a range of solicitors practising different areas of law. Also, it means they are capable of handling all avenues of complex litigation involving several areas of law.
Baby juniors are also confident handling complex litigation by the time they start tenancy. One way of freeing pupils from the restraints of impressing their masters and allowing them to focus instead on developing knowledge of practice areas is to inform them at the end of their first six months whether or not they will become tenants. This can encourage them, for instance, to visit solicitors' firms to improve their understanding of their business, and to develop contacts.
However, all this means very little unless a set is receiving work. Baby juniors rely significantly on senior juniors and silks in chambers receiving work, as they are often instructed to support them.
With the fact that juniors are best placed to handle specific areas of work at relatively low cost, combined with the fact that they can be relied on to handle a raft of work, whether it is an offshore trust case or a giant fraud dispute in London, it should come as no surprise that they are constantly able to enjoy plentiful work.
Declan Redmond is the chief executive of Wilberforce Chambers