Get set, go
1 October 2012
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What happens when barristers embrace direct access? Their chambers becomes the fastest-rising set in The Lawyer’s Bar Top 30. We look at the rise and rise of Monckton
The commercial bar has come a long way since the days when it was readily accepted that silks were gruff old fellows, standing aloof from solicitors and lay clients alike.
The modern silk marries advocacy skills with business acumen and excellent client care ability, topping it off with an eye for business development. It is the barristers who embrace these attributes best who will find themselves most in demand when the chips are down.
Today sees the launch of The Lawyer UK200 Annual Report 2012, the theme of which is how the country’s largest firms and top barristers’ sets are responding to a legal sector is in the midst of seismic change. As the report reveals, the enhanced focus on customer care coupled with clients demanding economic efficiency is forcing every lawyer in the land to look again at how they conduct their business.
This global picture of a tough legal market is compounded further in the UK by the entrance of new competitors in the post-Legal Services Act (LSA) environment. The upshot? The sector must wake up to new ways of delivering on customer care or risk being left out in the cold.
Across the bar, sets are assessing how best to survive in this brave new world. The bar is not immune from the competition presented by the LSA, neither is it unaware of the opportunities this presents more forward-thinking sets.
An increasing number of chambers have brought in marketing directors and installed chief executives in an effort to devise and implement new strategies. Some have moved into fresh practices areas through lateral barrister additions while others, such as 39 Essex Street, have sought to set up as panel chambers of choice with innovative billing and all the pizzazz that goes with it.
And then there is Monckton which, until recently, was trundling along happily, occupying the middle ground.
Not long ago Monckton was perceived to be one of those sets that was on the cusp of something big. A healthy stock of juniors and some exceptional candidates in its core areas of competition, EU and VAT law meant it would win instructions on the leading cases and yet there was a persistent perception in the market that it had all the ingredients of a top-level set but could not quite make the leap to the magic circle.
In the past three years, however, Monckton has undergone a dramatic internal evolution. Driven in part by a strategic ambition to gain market leadership credentials and in part by its success back in 2011 in gaining three new silks - Daniel Beard QC, Paul Harris QC, and Tim Ward QC - Monckton has just enjoyed its most successful year to date.
As revealed today in The Lawyer UK Bar Top 30 league table, Monckton saw turnover rise by 22 per cent last year to £21m, making it the biggest grower in the top 30. In the past five years turnover has risen by 59 per cent. Over the same period membership has risen by 10.
Over that five-year period Monckton has overtaken Outer Temple Chambers in the rankings as well as 11KBW, 7 Bedford Row and Matrix Chambers.
Some may put this down to the explosion in civil litigation and the fact that a record number of cases are being taken to the European courts. Equally, there have been some huge cases in the world of competition, both domestically and in Europe, while tax disputes are as lively as ever.
All this plays to Monckton’s strengths, but it would be unfair to say that luck alone has put chambers on the upward curve.
It was back in 2009 that Monckton put in motion a strategy aimed at pushing it up to a new level. Sitting in chambers on an autumnal morning alongside his deputy Melanie Hall QC and senior clerk David Hockney, head of chambers Paul Lasok QC says that chambers has long been considering its position.
“We’re always questioning ourselves and asking whether we’ve been going, and whether we’re going, in the right direction” he says.
Hockney was put in charge of the review. The result was simple - “play to our strengths”, says Hockney, adding that there were three pillars underpinning that aim: recruitment, maintaining core areas and developing new sub-groups.
Lasok describes the set as being a shape with spikes of excellence that needed to be smoothed out. In other words, there needed to be some consistency and overlap between core practices. This would be a step further away from the days when chambers were individualistic outfits. For Monckton members, the brand is central.
Lasok asserts that each member of chambers knows that individual success rests on the success of chambers as a whole.
“Years ago sets were a costs-sharing exercise,” he recalls. “Members didn’t speak to other members. So far as development of practices is concerned, times have changed. Every member now recognises we have a brand - everybody wants to perform within that brand image.”
Later, when Lasok has returned to his desk, Beard and Ward ruminate on how times have changed since they arrived at chambers.
Beard was a pupil with Monckton under the guidance of Jon Turner QC, a Monckton elder statesman, who helped steer him in the direction of competition law. Ward trained at 39 Essex Street under Robert Jay QC (of Leveson inquiry fame) before joining Monckton in 1999.
“When I was thinking about the bar, people warned me against it,” Beard tells Ward. “The bar will collapse and firms will succeed, I was told. Talk of the death of the bar couldn’t have been more wrong - we’re not seeing a diminution, it’s going the other way.”
Neither have ever been as busy as they are now. Ward, who says he joined Monckton because it gave him an opportunity to move into EU law - an area that barely existed when he was starting - is currently representing the Icelandic government in its case over the collapse of Icesave in 2008. Beard, meanwhile, is up his ears in competition damages cases. Harris is also meant to be in the room but was called into a conference call at the eleventh hour on a dispute involving Formula 1.
Both Ward and Beard have clearly enjoyed being at the cutting edge of developing European and competition law. Beard says he was fortunate enough to have been drafted in by Turner on the Premier League’s 2003 case against the OFT, which set him off in the field of competition.
“When you’re a junior the penance is e-disclosure,” says Beard, echoing the thoughts of thousands of solicitors and pupils sifting through papers right now. “I was lucky that mine was a Premier League case.” Essentially, this meant going through old football contracts - not bad for a football fan.
Both learned at the outset that they would not achieve career aims if they were not proactive.
“The old-fashioned bar just waited for the work to come in,” says Beard. “That isn’t successful anymore.”
“You can’t just sit and wait to see what work blows in - it doesn’t work like that,” he nods. “From the moment you get tenancy you should be marketing yourself.”
It is a sentiment Harris picks up on a few days later in a separate interview. A large chunk of Harris’ work comes direct from in-house counsel. He is on such good terms with some that they will approach him directly, leaving him to inform clerks of his activities. This would have been practically unheard of a decade ago, but Harris says he enjoys the customer relations. He is an avid sports fan and, as a go-to sports silk, over the summer he was retained as a sports advocate for the London Olympics (and yes, he got a ticket to the opening ceremony).
“I’m lucky to have a lot of clients that I like,” Harris smiles. “If they ring me up directly than I’m going to answer the phone. It’s a bit informal. I’ve always been like that - I don’t get instructions in the normal way. I can’t remember the last time I got a bundle of papers wrapped in pink ribbon. It saves them time.”
Nothing about Harris’ journey to the bar can be described as normal. He arrived in chambers when Jeremy Lever QC was at the helm, having lived in South America and the US. He did a mini-pupillage with Monckton and ended up staying for four years before leaving for Australia and New Zealand.
While in New Zealand he became involved in a case involving the SAS where a member of Bravo Two Zero had wanted to follow in Andy McNab’s steps by writing about his seven-year tour. The only problem was that he had not started on his tour yet and in the UK the attorney general wanted the publication stopped. Harris says the case was so sensitive that on one flight he sat on confidential files in an effort not to spill any state secrets.
After his stint overseas, during which time he also qualified in Australia and developed a sports practice, he decided to come back to the UK to focus on sport while developing an overlap with EU and competition law.
“When I came back we didn’t have a sports practice in chambers,” says Harris. “I wrote articles, did seminars and went to conferences. I’m genuinely interested in sports.”
In with the in-crowd
Harris’ emphasis on building relations in-house is something that has benefitted chambers as a whole. While Monckton is mindful of its solicitor client base and the nurturing this needs, it is the step-change in the way in-house counsel perceive the set that has really propelled its growth. Approximately 60 per cent of instructions now arrive directly from in-house counsel. Hockney leads this from the clerking room, but it is the barristers who are most central to this changing relationship, and they are acutely aware of it.
“The in-house legal market is increasingly becoming aware of how they can make use of the bar,” says Ward, who was recently instructed by the Government in a fight over pensions liabilities for part-time judges. “It’s a different relationship in that the barrister will have a solicitor, whereas working direct is a longer relationship - it needs to be built and nurtured”.
Beard adds that there is “a lot less formality in-house”.
The relationship with solicitors is evolving too, although neither Ward nor Beard can yet say precisely what that means in the present market.
“It’s a two-way relationship - a collaborative relationship,” they agree, adding that they work in partnership with instructing solicitors and will regularly go along to client pitches.
“The client expectation was that the barrister wasn’t readily available to [the client],” Beard reflects.
“Overall, the relationship is a more fluid dialogue now,” says Ward, before Beard interjects: “The point that Tim makes is that the relationship isn’t simple - it’s more complicated than we can really understand”.
What is clear is that to succeed, the modern silk must be conscious of all client demands, and aware that client expectations are changing.
It is how chambers deal with these shifting expectations that can make them stand out from the crowd. According to Lasok, commerciality doesn’t mean hiking up profit margins, but working to client demands.
So, The Lawyer asks: what does it mean to be commercial in the modern bar?
“I interpret it as knowing the client’s needs and responding,” says Lasok. “For some, commerciality can be understood pejoratively to mean profiteering - shadowing value to maximise profits.
In my view, the service I provide is cost-effective. It’s about trying to work out the right solution to problems. The bar is about identifying what the objectives of the client actually are, understanding them and helping to find a solution.”
Melanie Hill QC is quick to pick up on this point.
“If by commerciality you mean maximising profit margin, that’s not what we do,” insists Hill. “The marketing strategy is not about profit margin - it’s the client who is at the core of everything.”
The old ‘putting the client at the heart of our business’ line is one trotted out by law firms on almost every piece of marketing, but in Monckton’s case there is something behind it. Lasok goes on to explain that client expectations of the bar have changed greatly.
“Years ago barristers were rather remote people - you always went to the barrister’s chambers,” he says, inferring that perhaps it was not always the client who took priority, although today they still enjoy the prestige of visiting chambers in the Inns.
“Barristers are more responsive now,” he says. “There’s a degree of co-operation between the lay client, the solicitor and the barrister.”
Hall points out that even the design of Monckton’s building is intended to make chambers more inclusive. The use of a round table in meeting rooms, for example, avoids giving anyone an air of superiority.
“Client expectations have shifted over the years,” she says. “Now, it’s much more about rolling up your sleeves, getting stuck in and sorting it out.”
Of course, chambers does have to turn a profit and if there is no substance behind the customer service Monckton will not succeed.
Lasok is mindful of the downward push on rates gripping some sectors of the litigation market. While some at the bar can continue to demand mammoth fees, for the rest the reality is that in these straitened times clients want to pass on price pressures.
The bar, he says, is dogged by over-regulation - regulation that is based on “ideas that have passed their sell-by date”.
For example, he refers to the role of price competition in the world of professional services. One school of thought is that the bar, like firms, must adopt cheaper methods of billing. Inside corporations this is being driven by procurement departments.
Another view - and one that is held by many lawyers as well as Lasok - is that price has no part to play in competition for professional services.
“Price is not an indicator of better value,” he says emphatically. What is an indicator of value is being able to get stuck into a case and delivering a value outcome.
When it comes to bet-the-farm cases - the place where Monckton wants to be - he may have a point. There are deals to be done, but value is not always in the hourly rate.
These are the issues that Beard, Harris and Ward will have to get stuck into as their silk practices develop (see box).
As well as managing their caseloads all three are also pupil masters, mentoring young members of chambers.
It is an indication of how different life is at the modern bar when Harris comments that he tells pupils: “I’m not interested in what you wear to work or how many hours you’re spending here, I’m pleased if you have hobbies outside work. What I’m interested in is that you find the right answers at the right time.”
Ward says that, having qualified, many pupils are learned in the law but are yet to develop commercial skills.
“It’s the practical application of the law - a sensible application of strategy for a case,” adds Beard. “Those are the components that make you good at this.”
Monckton is only part-way through its strategy and there is no doubt that the increase in the set’s workload means it could do with a few more silks and juniors. That is not a bad position to be in - many at the bar would love to be able to turn work away.
The importance of silk
Increased competition for work in a profession that is trying to find its feet in a new world order means it is not easy for a silk to move on from a junior practice.
For the ‘Monckton three’, says Hockney, the story is different: “They’ve never been so busy.”
Ward says he was prompted to apply by the set’s clerks, while Beard realised the time had come when he was the only junior on a prominent case. Harris too was beginning to take the lead on cases.
“In our practice areas you need to be in silk to progress,” says Ward.
“If you’re in a practice like mine and you’re treating it seriously it’s the only career progression,” he says.
Any silk who has been through the process will tell you how hard it is. First they are required to source 12 judicial referees to help support their 70-page applications.
Each applicant then has to choose a small number of cases that reflect standards of excellence in six areas: understanding and using the law; written advocacy; oral advocacy; working with others; diversity; and integrity.
his self-assessment does not come easily to most barristers, who are more comfortable assessing the merits of others.
“There’s a self-aggrandising element that I didn’t like,” recalls Beard.
When all three of its applicants succeeded, however, it gave Monckton a big boost. The 22 per cent rise in turnover, while not down to the three alone, can be seen as a positive result.
After that fateful day when they received notification of their successful applications all three were required to attend the silks day where they were officially inaugurated. It is a ceremony tinged with the pomp and ceremony that goes hand-in-hand with certain upper-class rituals that seem barely in touch with the modern age.
“How preposterous is it that you have 100 people all wearing wigs and tights gathering in one place on the same day?” asks Beard laughing. “Although there ‘s a rigidity to it, the day is actually quite informal - you’re wearing fancy dress!”
“My wife said it was like I was getting married to the law,” smiles Ward, before Beard laughs and says: “Buttoned shoes, full-bottomed wigs - there’s a comedy value to the day”.
That said, both believe it is a rite of passage every silk should be allowed to enjoy.
“I’ve been working flat out ever since,” Beard continues. “Once you get silk there’s a gearing up in the expectations of what you’re going to do and how you manage cases.”
Harris too says the transition has been smooth.
“I’m swamped with work,” he says.
Harris has his own collection of follow-on damages cases in the pipeline - one alone is valued at £500m. In the area of sports he regularly brings in Monckton juniors on cases and has ambitions to develop the practice further.