19 November 2001
Shock horror. Birmingham counsel have been instructed on the biggest case ever heard in the city's mercantile court. Is the regional commercial bar finally catching up with its London peers and offering a service that the leading national firms are prepared to pay for?
Well, let's not get carried away, but if there has been a transformation, it can probably be dated back a couple of years to when the commercial bar was really suffering. The London bar went on an aggressive marketing campaign to the regions and this seems to have galvanised local practitioners into action.
In Birmingham, St Philips has leading regional commercial silk, John Randall QC, as its head of chambers, and tenants James Corbett QC and Andrew Charman received their Dunkin Donuts (see 'Birmingham set for record court hearing', below) instruction from national firm Hammond Suddards Edge.
In Manchester, 40 King Street is singled out, in Bristol it is Guildhall Chambers, and in Liverpool, Exchange Chambers carries increasing commercial clout - its turnover exceeds £9m, and its commercial team has more than doubled to 19, including three silks.
But, despite the odd individual, no chambers is singled out in Leeds. Why? It certainly boasts huge potential. Perhaps the four sets mentioned above should form an association and open an annexe there - just a thought.
The bar as a referral profession?
The bar has been very careful with its push on direct access not to upset its most important clients - UK law firms. Nonetheless, with its improving international connections and the potential impact of the Office of Fair Trading's report, it is anticipated that direct instructions will increase in the future. Before the bar goes into a spin over how to accommodate a growing conflict, it should bear in mind its own importance to UK law firms. Last year, at least two of the top 10 commercial sets referred work to their solicitor friends worth more than £2m each.
Clearly, preserving good relationships with chambers not only ensures firms get the barristers they want, when they want, and at the right-ish price, it might also mean they pick up a bit of work as well. So where do the strong relationships lie? Freshfields has strong ties with Fountain Court and One Essex Court, which also enjoys the company of Slaughter and May and Herbert Smith. Linklaters has traditionally been a good friend of Brick Court Chambers (which also likes Norton Rose and Barlows), but is also understood to be using Essex Court and 20 Essex Street more. As a result of their strengths in shipping and insurance, these two sets also enjoy very strong ties with Ince & Co, Holman Fenwick and Clyde & Co, while 7 King's Bench Walk enjoys the company of the likes of Camerons, Barlows and DJ Freeman.
The new employment bill
The proposed employment bill is intended to discourage potential applicants from making unnecessary claims and is hoped to cut the number of tribunal applications by up to 30 per cent. This has led to fears that the junior bar would suffer, as employment tribunals (ETs) are one of its favourite training grounds. But such fears seem to be unfounded. While claims to ETs have increased by 60 per cent in three years, and by 25 per cent last year alone, this has less to do with vexatious litigants than an increase in the number of employees rights that they are more than happy to exercise. In 1999/2000 for example, claims on sex, race and disability discrimination and equal pay made up 12 per cent of the total, while in 2000/01 this group represented 22 per cent. As one leading employment practitioner says: "There's the most ludicrous obsession with reducing tribunal claims and knocking out vexatious litigants. Employees simply have hundreds more rights than they had in the past and are prepared to enforce them, but the Department of Trade and Industry will never accept this is the case. You have to take these things with a huge pinch of salt."