Focus: Fountain Court: The star chambers
12 July 2010
After a shake-up during which the set diversified its workload and rebuilt its clerking function, Fountain Court has had the most successful
year in its history. By Katy Dowell
It was not too long ago that Fountain Court was at risk of losing the confidence of its more junior members. Today, after a bit of a shake-up, the set is celebrating its best year ever, having turned things around.
Fountain Court, winner of The Lawyer’s Chambers of the Year accolade at this year’s awards, has quietly undergone an internal revolution over the past two years.
On a mission to provide the right mix of work for members at all levels, the set has overhauled its clerking function, a move that is having a profound effect on its profile in the litigation market.
When Michael Brindle QC appointed Alex Taylor as director of clerking at Fountain Court in early 2008, hiring him from Old Square Chambers, he could not have anticipated the impact it would have on chambers. Under Taylor the clerking room has been revolutionised and this is having a knock-on effect on the success of its members.
“The clerking function is vital,” emphasises Brindle. “There were problems in the clerks room and I made sure we got Alex in to sort it out.”
Brindle refuses to divulge exactly what those “problems” were; nevertheless, when Taylor’s predecessor Michael Couling quit in December 2007 to join 11 Stone Buildings Brindle told The Lawyer: “We didn’t know about Michael’s move until recently, so for chambers it was sudden, but we’re not upset about that.” (The Lawyer, 3 December 2007.)
According to sources at the bar, before Taylor joined the set relations between the set’s more junior members and some of the clerks were fraught with tension. Perceptions outside the set were that junior members were not being looked after.
“There were even questions about whether they should be seen as a magic circle set,” says one rival practice director. “That was probably a bit extreme, but people were questioning them a few years ago. Now things are different - not everything has been polished, but they’ve done well to turn that around and they deserve the magic circle tag.”
Taylor’s appointment was the turning point.
He overhauled the clerking structure and introduced the team leader position. Each team leader works with an assistant to service the needs of a cross-section of silks and juniors.
“If you go back a few years there was a concern that we were only getting the big blockbuster cases,” admits head of chambers Tim Dutton QC. “In the past two years that’s changed - we’re getting a lot more mid-tier cases.”
The set has been involved with some of the leading cases of the past two decades, including BCCI, JPMorgan Chase Bank v Springwell and the Boxclever litigation (CDC Ixis Capital Markets v WestLB AG & CIBC World Markets). It is a track record that is reflected in Fountain Court alumni, which includes former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer and former Attorney General Peter Goldsmith, as well as the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill.
While involvement in top-tier cases is a good profile-booster and helps makes stars out of silks, it can take attention away from junior members.
“They have some excellent people like Brindle, [Anthony] Boswood QC and Bankim Thanki [QC] - the question is how far that comes down the tree,” says another clerk.
Getting the right mix
Taylor recognises that there was a need to diversify the set’s workload to give junior members exposure to the courts.
“People look at us and see us on the top cases, but you can’t survive on that, we need the other work too,” he admits.
“I hope that people think that we’re a set that provides high-quality advice and advocacy,” says Dutton when asked how the set thinks it is perceived by non-members. “They probably think of us as traditional, although we’re not.”
The new clerking structure facilitates the needs of both the silks and junior members with a team leader and assistant taking care of between 12 and 14 members of varying degrees of qualification each.
“It’s a good way of mentoring younger clerks and getting them to focus on barristers,” Taylor says, adding that the set has the right mix of experience, with senior clerk Mark Watson and deputy senior clerk Vince Plant mixed with a new set of younger team leaders who were handpicked for the job.
The biggest challenge for Fountain Court, though, is to make sure it has the right mix of cases. Dutton says that all barristers are hungry to sit on the best trials of their generation, but before they can get to that stage they need to have the right mix of experience.
If there were problems with work distribution then Taylor, strongly supported by the set’s senior silks, has changed that.
Dutton says it is essential for work to be distributed fairly.
“If a QC needs a junior, it has to go through the clerking room so that everybody has the opportunity to do work,” he explains.
Bagging the best
Both Brindle and Dutton agree that the set must continue to check itself to stay ahead of the competition.
“We still have things to do,” concedes Brindle. “We need to bring in more people.”
Fountain Court prefers to grow organically and last year was one of a number of sets to raise its pupillage salary to £60,000.
“We invest heavily in our pupils, we’re seeking to attract at entry level people who’ll become the best QCs of the future,” says Dutton.
This is no mean feat. The set is not only competing with its peers at the bar for that talent, but also with City firms keen to bring in barristers. This comes at a time when barristers increasingly find themselves competing with solicitors for work.
It is this competition that has forced sets across the Temple to reconsider their clerking functions. It is no longer possible for barristers to wait for the work to come to them; they have to be marketers.
Dutton encourages members to take secondments at City firms, with people being farmed out to Addleshaw Goddard, Allen & Overy, Clyde & Co and Herbert Smith.
“Our solicitor clients are more sophisticated purchasers than 10 or even five years ago,” says Dutton. “They need to know that we understand their business.
“Skill levels go up in a competitive environment and what we’re trying to do is make sure we’ve tailored the right response.”
This means being more proactive about meeting with solicitors, providing seminars (something that is routinely done by firms but only recently extended to the bar) and creating client profiles.
According to Eversheds litigation group chief Ian Gray, it is a tactic that is paying off.
“Fountain Court’s taken the lead with us in terms of building a deeper relationship between the firm and the set of chambers,” says Gray. “Alex Taylor’s been very proactive and this has led to strong workstreams, particularly in the financial services and banking sector.
“We co-hosted a dinner recently with four of their QCs with in-house investment banking litigation counsel to discuss current issues in litigation and arbitration, which was a great success - it’s just the kind of client-focused activity that sets them apart.”
Legal Services Act
As with many of its peers, Fountain Court is attempting to assess what impact, if any, the introduction of the Legal Services Act (LSA) will have on its position.
The most pressing matter for chambers’ management right now is the introduction of ’procurecos’ and what, if any, impact such structures will have on its ability to win new business.
In theory, under the terms of the LSA, sets will be allowed to establish procurement companies that will better enable them to win work from non-solicitor clients. Such structures could have panel members who sit outside the profession, such as accountants, or it could refer work to non-members for a price.
Dutton, like several other Fountain Court members, advised on the formulation of the act, but he says it will have little impact on the set.
“We offer a rich range of services from a broad set of skills,” he says proudly. “We’re keen to continue doing that. We don’t want to be conflicted. We wouldn’t do an LDP [legal disciplinary practice]”.
Work, work, work
That said, Dutton believes that the publicly funded bar, under pressure from government cuts, will seek to take advantage of the act, which will in turn create work for the set’s already busy members.
“As the new structures develop they’ll need expert advice,” he says. “The same will happen with the shift out of the FSA and Ofcom - there’ll be an increase in advisory work.”
In fact, the set predicts that its workload will continue to grow as it reaps the rewards of its recent restructure. As a result it will be appointing a new team leader and team leader’s assistant later this year.
The appointment of Taylor as director of clerking was clearly a turning point fot the set.
Fountin Court has long been a home for top-flight silks, and under the leadership structure the juniors are beginning to have their day. n