Hardwicke Bldg suffers slew of departures as practice splits up

Lack of cap system on chambers contributions blamed for defections as Romie Tager QC launches commercial set

After relative calm in the world of bar lateral hires a new storm has erupted. At its centre is Hardwicke Building, the country's second largest set after Birmingham's St Philips.
In recent weeks four family tenants have left Hardwicke (Richard Bates and Stephen Lyon joined 4 Paper Buildings; Alexis Campbell joined 29 Bedford Row; and Judith Spooner defected to 2 Gray's Inn Square). This coincided with the news at the end of May that 16 civil tenants from Goldsmith Building were joining Hardwicke over the next few months (see The Lawyer 27 May).
And last week Goldsmith Chambers announced its merger with No.1 Dr Johnson's Buildings and its plans to take some of the tenants at Goldsmith Building who did not join the 16 others going to Hardwicke. This coincided with the news that a new commercial property set, Selborne Chambers, will launch today (24 June) under the helm of one of Hardwicke's biggest fee-earners and most respected counsel, Romie Tager QC. He is joined by six others, including the highly rated property commercial practitioner Philip Kremen.
Joining them at Selborne are the backbone of Hardwicke's civil clerking team – senior clerk Greg Piner, first junior Paul Bunting, second junior Andrew Sargeant and fees clerk Darren Madle – as well as four property specialists from 29 Bedford Row.
Hardwicke says the damage caused by the departures is minimal but although the set retains five silks, Tager and four of the others leaving (William Bojczuk, Neil Mendoza, Hugh Jackson and Philip Kremen) are among Hardwicke's biggest financial hitters.
Hardwicke had a chambers contribution system which, unlike a lot of other sets, did not set a cap on earnings which reached a certain level. Chambers contributions are the percentage of a barrister's earnings paid to chambers to cover overheads. Tager et al were paying the same percentage of their earnings as the rest of chambers. As Hardwicke takes on a lot of low-paid publicly-funded work, its contributions represented a substantial amount of chambers' income.
Furthermore, chambers contributions are set at about 21 per cent (in addition to room rates) – higher than most other London sets. Tager said this payment structure was not his primary reason for leaving, but he and the others clearly accounted for this in their departure and he added that he hopes to pay a lower percentage of his earnings at Selborne.
Hardwicke has so far rejected the idea of introducing a cap system, although the idea has been mooted. The idea may be revisited after the arrival of the 16 tenants from Goldsmith Building.
Before that happens, the set, on 4 July, will rebrand itself as Hardwicke Criminal and Hardwicke Civil – effectively two sets, but under the same roof and management. This will spark a review of the existing single contributions structure, presumably to account for the current disparity of earnings between the civil, family and criminal teams. This rebranding move is reminiscent of the demerger of Cloisters' civil and criminal groups, which led to the departure of 17 criminal practitioners. Since the demerger, Cloisters, now a purely civil practice, has been tremendously successful and Hardwicke must hope that it can plough a similar path.
Arguably, the rebranding could remove the set's biggest problems: by demerging civil and criminal, Hardwicke can get around the problems of both chambers contributions and the difficulties and potential disunity that can arise from working in such a large set.
However, size continues to be an issue. Tager argues that it can cause practical difficulties, for example when a barrister is unavailable for part of a case, a common occurrence. “It is the kind of situation where being in a large set makes it more difficult for solicitors to be contacted and a dialogue to be opened to solve the problem,” he says.
The need in large sets for management can also lead to a remoteness between those running sets and the tenants. More old-school barristers say chambers chief executives and directors are never as good as an able senior clerk. Yet notwithstanding that certain sets have thrived under chambers directors – particularly 39 Essex Street which since the appointment of Michael Meeson two years ago has developed internationally and in its commercial capacity – Hardwicke has historically had its fair share of troubles at the top of management.
In 1999, The Lawyer reported one source as claiming that Tony Wells, who had recently resigned from Hardwicke as its practice manager, had been “keen to get out” because there had been “quite a lot of in-fighting”. It took Hardwicke nine months to find a replacement. Former Bupa general manager Hilary Mundella eventually took over as chief executive, after four others were offered but rejected the job. Headhunter specialist Ann Buxton replaced Mundella last year and remains in place. She, however, has had to take the strain of incoming and outgoing tenants ever since.
Another problem with a large set which has many different practice areas is that it bucks the current trend of the bar towards increased specialism. Certainly Hardwicke's devolving of its criminal and civil groups will go some way to creating a more specialist set, and Buxton says the set is well aware of the need to become more specialist.
The new breed of speciialist involves not only working in one area of law, but two or more complementary areas.
The new Selborne Chambers is a case in point. Tager said: “It will develop around a group of barristers who have the skills, expertise and general standing which will enable us to create a successful specialist set.” All but the most junior barristers have property as their core practice area as well as elements of chancery and commercial. These areas are complementary. For example, a barrister working on a commercial fraud case needs knowledge of property law to trace the fraudster's assets, or a conveyancing matter may require professional negligence expertise.
There are other examples. The merger of 2 Paper Buildings and One Essex Court in 2000 was one of expertise, so all angles of a complex international fraud case could be handled by its commercial and criminal practitioners. Stone Chambers (formerly 4 Field Court), having lost five juniors and two silks, subsequently reestablished itself as a niche commercial and IP practice – both complementary areas of law. It retained part of its shipping capacity, presumably because this had long been its niche area, as well as a lot of instructing solicitors. Maitland chambers and New Square Chambers are the results of mergers of sets which brought together commercial and chancery work, again both complementary areas.
And last week multi-disciplinary set 29 Bedford Row announced it is to become a family specialist set. Although its civil members have been told they can stay, there is little reason for them to do so. Its personal injury barristers, for instance, will always be better served in a specialist PI set. Property and commercial barrister Mark Warwick, one of the four 29 Bedford Row barristers joining Selborne Chambers, commented: “There are few people we can chat to at 29 Bedford Row about our work because there are a limited number in our area of work. The motivating force for us [to leave] is that our area of work does not have critical mass. Meanwhile, the strength of family work, which represents 75 per cent of chambers' work, has grown.”
Clearly, barristers in multidisciplinary sets are waking up to the fact that the best instructions and the most room for career development arises from being in a specialist set. Barristers are also happiest when their practices cross with that of their fellow tenants. Tager wants Selborne Chambers, which has 11 barristers in place for its launch, to remain small, growing to an optimum size of 25 tenants. “[This is] so we can all communicate easily. Decisions will be made speedily and easily, and historically established personal relationships can be enjoyed,” he remarked. But it is clear that sets, while becoming more specialist, are larger than they were 15 years ago when a chambers of 35 would be considered busy. Today such a set is medium sized.
This is not to knock the talent of individuals at Hardwicke, but as one senior silk said, the firm covers too wide a field to be a leader in anything.