THE SPECIALIST chancery chambers 17 Old Buildings has been swallowed up by 10 Old Square to create one of the largest chancery sets.
And in another move, Birmingham chambers 7 Fountain Court and Priory Chambers have agreed to merge to create the country's biggest set with 78 tenants.
The moves, which follow the merger in March of common law sets 3 Paper Buildings and Plowden Buildings to form a 50-tenant set, are taking place against a backdrop of great uncertainty at the Bar as it struggles to come to terms with the government's plans to shake up the legal system.
They will sound alarm bells in smaller sets, many of which have fallen victim to aggressive recruiting drives by leading chambers.
Since last October 17 Old Buildings, which had been in existence for a century, has lost its head of chambers, Geoffrey Jacques, who left to become a bankruptcy registrar, and six tenants to various sets, including Wilberforce Chambers and 13 Old Square which have both advertised for new tenants.
Jacques' successor Owen Rhys said that size was the crucial factor behind the decision of the set's remaining seven barristers to join 10 Old Square. He added: "In the future niche sets can survive but larger sets are better placed because of the economies of scale."
In recent months chancery sets have been particularly prone to poaching raids, both from other chancery sets and commercial sets aiming to widen their practice areas.
But Ian Duggan, senior clerk at 5 New Square, which recently lost one of its tenants to premier commercial set Fountain Court, said there was no need to panic. He said: "We've consolidated our position, are happy with our size and are looking confidently toward the future."
In Birmingham, 7 Fountain Court and Priory Chambers have been locked in talks since The Lawyer first revealed their intention to merge in March.
Rex Tedd QC, head of chambers at 7 Fountain Court, who will head the as yet unnamed broad-based new set, said it needed numbers to provide strength in depth. He added: "In the next couple of years a number of sets will have over 100 tenants."
He confirmed that he had already received a number of single and group applications to join the set. It is also known to have approached clerks at other Birmingham sets.
It is rumoured that the Birmingham merger met opposition from within both sets, particularly from criminal barristers, and that the plan was only accepted after Tedd threatened to dissolve the set.
But Tedd told The Lawyer: "No member of either set voted against the merger and virtually all members gave full and active support. It is not accurate that I, or anyone else, threatened to resign."