5 November 2001
Last week, The Lawyer revealed that Polish firm Wardynski & Partners was to open an office in Brussels, or more precisely sub-let office space from Brick Court Chambers, with which it has an association. Brick Court is one of very few chambers with an international office, and while Matrix Chambers has mooted the possibility of joining forces with other sets in order to finance the launch of a foreign office, most have rejected any such plan as unfeasible.
Most clerks balk at the thought of linkups for fear that it will compromise independence. Brick Court senior clerk Ian Moyler says that it does not prevent chambers accepting instructions from other Polish firms and he would be keen to pursue associations with firms in other EU candidate countries.
An alternative strategy for developing international business is to build a network of door tenants based in exotic jurisdictions. They can spread the message and in return have the kudos of being associated with a leading set at the English bar.
International work is clearly of huge importance to the bar. According to the Office for National Statistics, legal services contributed £1.3bn to the UK's exports in 2000. The bar, according to statistics supplied by Combar, contributed £61m - up almost 100 per cent on the figures from 1995.
Work for international clients can make up as much as 60 per cent of business and commonly accounts for more than 40 per cent. For example, the 15 or so firms in the Cayman Islands represent Wilberforce Chambers' second or third-largest client. The nature of that work, though, is changing.
Arbitrations and advisory work are now the mainstay of an international practice. Court work for international clients is much more likely to be UK-based, but does still happen. One Essex Court's Christopher Carr QC and 4 Stone Buildings' head Philip Heslop QC are currently battling it out in a $400m (£275m) banking dispute in Hong Kong. It could well run until next March, but such work is becoming rare. Singapore is still a wealthy source of arbitrations and advisory work, but the doors of its courts are closed to English advocates. Hong Kong is still open to UK silks with special skills, but anyone who has attempted to market the UK bar over there will know the trouble that even a little drinks soiree can get you into.
For some it is no bad thing. Working overseas takes you out of circulation from other clients and, despite the weather, poses its own problems. On a recent appearance in a Caribbean court one UK counsel had to endure a judge who spent more time discussing lager and women's anatomy than the dispute in issue.
Who's who at the commercial bar?
How would you judge which sets lead the way at the commercial bar? An obvious yardstick is financial performance, hence The Lawyer's recent Bar Top 30, which saw One Essex Court regain pole position with a turnover of £27m. Of course, this cannot be the sole arbiter, since it discriminates against smaller sets, which simply do not have the numbers to crank up the figures. Although definitive statistics are not currently available, it is worth noting that the sets, in alphabetical order, that were most visible in the Commercial Court last year are: Brick Court, Essex Court, One Essex Court, 4 Essex Court, Fountain Court and 7 King's Bench Walk. In the next band comes Blackstone, 4 Field Court (soon to be renamed Stone Chambers), Littleton, 4 Pump Court and 3 Verulam Buildings.
The end of confidentiality in the Family Division?
Tomorrow sees the start of a Court of Appeal hearing that could sweep away the culture of secrecy that exists in the Family Courts. The original judgment would allow parties involved in cases dealt with in the Family Division (except for cases involving children) to report on their experience, improving substantially the transparency of this area of the legal system. In giving leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice Munby said in his judgment: "This is not just because it goes to the daily practice of the Family Division, but much more fundamentally, because it goes to the root of the proper administration of justice and of the rights of litigants to talk in public about what has happened to them in court."