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Clifford Chance has launched a scathing attack on the "antiquated" fee structures employed by barristers, and introduced a radical scheme to get a grip on counsel fees.
Under the new arrangement, all 150 solicitors in its contentious business department will have to instruct counsel via a new negotiating team made up of four partners, who will be in charge of all negotiations with chambers.
Contentious business partner Chris Perrin unveiled the plan at a chambers marketing seminar run by The Lawyer last week.
He said the traditional system, whereby 150 solicitors at the firm instructed clerks once every 6 to 12 months, meant they did not get a proper feel for the market.
"We're trying to make sure we have two to four people who do all the negotiations with the clerks," he said. "The more you do, the more you know what the going rates are."
Perrin went on to attack the fee structures employed by barristers as "antiquated", and said larger firms no longer needed the junior Bar.
He singled out the brief fee system for attack, describing it as "archaic", and said barristers should have to pay a rebate when they are double-booked.
He also warned that Clifford Chance was no longer interested in employing junior barristers to stand alongside leading counsel, because it was cheaper to use in-house staff.
Two partners have been appointed to the team, with two more to be appointed soon.
The majority of firms still allow their solicitors to hire counsel on a case-by-case basis - but the Clifford Chance move is a sign that business clients are increasingly fed up with the fees demanded by counsel.
Linklaters & Paines has also introduced a system to keep tabs on costs, after head of advocacy Mark Humphries conducted an audit and discovered that it was paying out too much to counsel's fees. Under its system, solicitors must get a detailed chit signed by a partner before they can instruct outside counsel.
Humphries also attacked the brief fee, but said that when his firm tried to get a chambers to charge an hourly rate it flatly refused. He said the firm's long-term aim was to conduct most advocacy work in-house.
Tony McDaid, senior clerk at the massive Birmingham set 5 Fountain Court, said it had moved to bring in more flexible fee structures.
Paul Shrubsall, senior clerk at Anthony Grabiner QC's set One Essex Court, conceded that barristers may have to begin to accept a base fee with a built-in uplift for success.