Frankly, it’s disappointing. At the beginning of the year there was a lot of talk about the benefits of more London chambers merging. Several personal injury chambers were considering it. Some felt threatened with bigger sets, such as the then newly-merged Crown Office Row, and those that did not match the market requirement of being ultra specialist feared dissolution if they stayed as they were.
Criminal chambers were busy re-branding as civil fraud experts in order to survive the threats to their fees, so unsurprisingly we saw the merger of commercial and criminal practices such as that of Sir Ivan Lawrence QC’s One Essex Court and Desmond De Silva QC’s 2 Paper Buildings. Nevertheless, there has been much less activity than in 2000.
Despite the bar’s obsession with its own demise and leaving the criminal bar to one side for a moment, 2001 has been a profitable year. Nearly all of the sets in The Lawyer’s inaugural Bar Top 30 posted improved turnovers, in total raking in an impressive £406m. Most practitioners have enjoyed a busy time, in part explaining the reduction in the panic moves and mergers that have been seen in the past.
But one move did get people talking: Michael Beloff QC finally made up his mind and plumped for Blackstone Chambers as his new home – the one set in his field not to have courted his affections. This move was despite indications that he would join former colleagues at the UK’s least popular set Matrix, having kept them hanging on for more than 14 months. Two important mergers also took place. One Raymond Buildings and 5 New Square merged in April to form Hogarth Chambers, creating a 27-tenant intellectual property, media, chancery and commercial set.
The most significant merger of the year came in January, when Maitland Chambers was formed out of a merger of two established chancery/commercial sets, 13 Old Square and 7 Stone Buildings. Now under the direction of Peter Bennett, formerly of 36 Bedford Row, it has made its mark. It appeared in equal eighth place with 3 Verulam Buildings in The Lawyer’s Bar Top 30, with a turnover of £14.5m, just behind its biggest rival Wilberforce Chambers, which raked in a cool £16m.
Despite Bennett’s success, and that of a number of his chief executive/chambers director colleagues, questions continue to be raised about the usefulness of such a role. Undeterred, 7 Bedford Row is among those sets to have this year replaced a senior clerk with a chambers director.
Fraud and crime set 2 Hare Court is another to have hired a director, but appears to have taken a long-term view. Recruited in October, Barbara-Ann Tweedie’s remit is to financially restructure the set and improve its efficiency to prepare for any future eventuality – including a potential merger with a law firm.
The regional bar deserves a mention for a generally impressive year. Not only has it had to put up with London sets increasingly trying to muscle in on its local patches, it also continues to face the usual put-down that it simply cannot handle the big work. True enough, but there are hints of change. St Philips Chambers in Birmingham has just been instructed on the biggest case ever heard in the city’s mercantile court, while Liverpool’s Exchange Chambers’ commercial team now boasts three silks, with its turnover exceeding £9m.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. With a downturn already in evidence, the criminal bar is ever more fearful of its future. Even in this, a buoyant year, there were some closures, including that of Cardinal Chambers, set up by former Cloisters’ senior clerk Michael Martin and leading tenant Philip Engelman.
Engelman has now returned to Cloisters, a sign of the turnaround in fortunes effected by Laura Cox QC. Martin, along with the majority of Cardinal’s tenants, has joined forces with his friends at 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings, forming a new set called Charter Chambers.
2002 promises to be more turbulent still for the criminal bar, and there is some fear that this could spread elsewhere. But with an economic downturn usually comes a boom in litigation, so there are unlikely to be many commercial silks cancelling their ski trip just yet.