Chambers closures show a healthy bar

Jonathan Hirst QC analyses the reasons behind the recent spate of chambers dissolutions. Jonathan Hirst QC is chairman of the Bar Council.

Recent months have seen a steady flow of public announcements reporting chambers' mergers, dissolutions and new start-ups.

Comparisons are made with a supposedly golden age when barristers joined their chambers after pupillage and only left on appointment to the bench or retirement.

That stability was always somewhat exaggerated. For years there have been career moves where barristers have changed chambers after pupillage because they were rejected as tenants, or later because they wished to develop their careers in a more specialist set.

It is obvious that what we are now seeing is on a much larger scale. Some have sought to look for a single driving factor. I think that the reasons are more varied and complex.

The modern bar is not immune from economic forces – exactly the same forces operate on solicitors' practices. The 1999 BDO Stoy Hayward survey identified that medium-sized sets faced particular challenges. The largest sets and many niche sets were doing well, but many medium-sized sets were less successful.

There are risks in generalisations, but surveys, if correct, can act as a catalyst for change, and what is happening suggests that BDO was right in its general analysis.

As chambers embrace the challenges offered by the internet and the need to invest in premises for the future, they realise that this can be achieved far more effectively with larger chambers.

It might be said that Scotland realised this centuries ago, collecting the entire bar into the Library in Edinburgh as a central unit.

The same would not work south of the border, with a much larger, more diverse and regional bar, but chambers are investing in premises and support systems and coming to terms with the economies of scale. The bar's colonisation of Essex Street and Bedford Row shows this, as does the refurbishment of the Inns. Outside London, the same influences can be seen by the development of many circuit sets. The BarMark quality standard, towards which many chambers are working, also acts as a driving force towards mergers.

The abolition of legal aid for personal injury work led to the introduction of conditional fees in large areas of common law work. This has led several common law sets to review their organisation.

The Biddle report suggested that chambers would create purse or risk sharing groups. So far that has not happened, perhaps because members of a group cannot appear against each other so might lose work.

However, the considerable risks for the common law bar created by the introduction of conditional fees have concentrated minds on the future and made several chambers think about the benefits of scale.

There are sets that can prosper led by one star, but when they leave, the remaining members are exposed. For example, after Patricia Scotland's departure from 1 Gray's Inn Square into government, the chambers has imploded.

Chambers, which have no real leader, are very vulnerable in this economic climate. No business can expect its team to stay intact indefinitely. Loyalty is less permanent than perhaps it once was and competitive forces are stronger.

This is in the long-term interests of the profession, but it emphasises the dangers for unbalanced chambers.

Well founded chambers have a structure running from top to bottom and realise that they are as strong as the quality of their intake. A strong chambers rejoices in the departure of its stars to higher things, a weak chambers despairs.

In the creation of Matrix Chambers, a different force is at work. The advent of the Human Rights Act heralds a large area of work. Some of the specialists in the field are joining together to offer their expertise. Even so, other established sets do retain excellent practitioners in the field.

The bar has always been a highly competitive profession, in which Darwinian forces prevail. What is striking is the congruence and urgency of these forces. Perhaps this is because it consists of self-employed practitioners, is also extraordinarily flexible, and responds well to change. The current wave of mergers and dissolutions is a sign of a dynamic and healthy profession.

While these announcements hit the headlines, equally impressive and significant is the strong organic growth taking place in many chambers as they prepare for the challenges ahead.