Dawn of the super-set?

39 Essex Street/4-5 Gray’s Inn link-up could be a sign of things to come

It is difficult to pinpoint what triggered talks between London sets 4-5 Gray’s Inn Chambers and 39 Essex Street Chambers, but the result will be the creation of London’s largest civil set.

We can’t call this one a merger because, technically, it isn’t, but 39 Essex Street is in discussions to take between 25 and 30 members from 4-5 Gray’s Inn.

The future of 4-5 Gray’s Inn has been the subject of much conjecture at the inns since barrister CVs started circulating in July. The set was home to 56 members, including 16 silks, at the last year-end, according to The Lawyer’s UK top 30 chambers list.

In recent weeks, however, there have been a series of departures, with Landmark Chambers taking three silks – Philip Coppel QC, Tim Corner QC and Paul Brown QC – Matrix taking two members and 11KBW taking on a further four.

With around 30 tenants expected to join 39 Essex Street – and there is no confirmation of who they will be – some members are left looking for new homes.

Getting deja vu? Back in January 2000 4-5 Gray’s Inn entered merger talks with Monckton Chambers after seven tenants, including Cherie Booth QC and David Bean QC, quit for newly launched Matrix Chambers. At that time Michael Beloff QC was head of the set, having joined from Blackstone Chambers (then known as 2 Hare Court) in the 1980s. Beloff too was expected to join Matrix but instead, in a shock move, returned to his former set in 2001, a little more than a year after the talks collapsed acrimoniously.

This left 4-5 Gray’s Inn having to rebuild. For some time things went well, but the recession hit the planning bar hard, while rates in the public sector – another key 4-5 Gray’s Inn group – have hardly boomed.

39 Essex Street, home to Robert Jay QC of Leveson Inquiry fame, is a top 10 set and while it has some headline-making cases it also has volume personal injury work.

The combined chambers would be a powerful force, but whether that would trigger more consolidation at the bar is another matter.

Katy Dowell