Chambers' fortunes, just like those of law firms, can change rapidly. Just look at One Essex Court: a raft of departures in 2000 put enormous strain on the set, but just a year later it is boasting record turnovers and, financially, it is possibly the strongest set at the bar. But One Essex Court is not the only set to have enjoyed improving fortunes.
In just two years – coinciding with the arrival of Michael Meeson as practice director – 39 Essex Street has effected a remarkable turnaround after a turbulent period which saw a number of departures, including that of longstanding senior clerk Nigel Connor. From a general common law practice that had been suffering mixed fortunes, its commercial team in particular is an emerging talent, contributing to a rapid improvement in the set's financial strength. Surprisngly, its turnover results are close to 3/4 South Square's, a set stuffed with lawyers in millionaires' row.
Exchange Chambers has taken less of a giant leap and more of a sustained series of short ones, which now sees it ranked on a par with highly-rated London sets. Excellent strategy, good business nous on top of strong technical brains and a burgeoning commercial practice are all contributing factors.
Meanwhile, the fledgling Maitland Chambers has landed not only on two feet after its birth in January 2001, but with its legs already clambering for the next challenge. It meets 2002 with big cases on the boil and internal reforms under starter's orders.
All this is not to say that other chambers are not deserving of praise. Indeed, the English and Welsh bar is the envy of most of the world. However, for potential growth in talent, turnover and practice profile, these three are the cream of the crop.
Criminal: 27 barristers, including six silks (joint head of chambers David Turner QC is well regarded). Contributes 40 per cent of the set's turnover.
Personal injury: 24 barristers, including five silks (joint head Bill Braithwaite QC is highly rated). Generates 35 per cent of chambers' income.
Commercial/chancery: 18 barristers, including silks Anthony Elleray, Edward Bartley Jones and Mark Cawson. Contributes 20 per cent of the set's turnover.
Family: nine tenants and no silks. Five per cent of overall work.
Other areas include: shipping (2); employment (6); tax (2); actions involving the police (3 silks – Charles Chruszcz, Graham Morrow and Tim Holroyde – and 5 juniors).
If you want an argument in favour of the growing strength of the regional bar, then look no further than Liverpool and Manchester-based Exchange Chambers.
In 2002, despite other sets predicting a slowdown in growth, Exchange still expects to record a 30 per cent rise in turnover, pushing it above £10m for the first time and equating to a 100 per cent increase in just five years.
Practice manager Tom Handley has been at Exchange for nine years and is as optimistic as ever. There was one commercial barrister in the set when he started – there are now 18. He says commercial is the fastest growing practice in chambers.
A roll-call of cases for 2001 includes DLA instructing Mark Cawson QC in the Cammell Laird receivership and Davies Wallis Foyster instructing Edward Bartley Jones QC in the Take That litigation; tenants were also involved in the £30m Hampshire Cosmetics dispute and the ongoing wrangle between UK tenor Russell Watson and Union Music.
Work from smaller firms continues to provide the bedrock of the set's commercial practice, but there has been a sea change in the attitude of the region's larger firms, with the set now receiving instructions from the likes of Addleshaw Booth & Co and Eversheds.
“As we're the only chambers to have bases in Liverpool and Manchester, and because we're a big set, the bigger firms are using us more once they know we're reliable,” explains Handley.
Kit Sorrell, litigation partner at Wacks Caller, agrees, saying that the new Manchester annexe has provided Exchange with “huge potential” and gives it an automatic lead over its closest rival 40 King Street. “It's ahead in Liverpool and gets work from the North Wales coast and Chester, and it's also feeling the spinoff from the success of the Irish economy,” he says. But he reckons Exchange's success includes getting one over on the London bar. “Over the last two years the volume of commercial work in London has gone down so constantly that we're getting calls from them pushing their counsel on us,” he says. However, with the exception of tax work and judicial reviews, he sends his instructions to either 40 King Street in Manchester or Exchange, with whose performance he is very impressed, particularly in shareholder and partnership disputes, warranty claims, insolvency and professional negligence. He describes commercial silk Edward Bartley Jones QC as “absolutely extraordinary. A bullying character with astonishing brightness.” However, he says that, in terms of fees, the set is on a par with London.
But what of the set's strategy to sustain the momentum? A merger is not currently on the cards, not least because of the raft of new tenants the set has picked up in recent years. In February 2001, for example, it picked up a team of eight barristers from Manchester set St James's. The group was led by commercial expert Anthony Elleray QC, who joined Exchange's Manchester annexe.
Also from St James's, Exchange was joined by Charles Chruszcz QC to its criminal team, regarded by many as the finest in the North West. Last year, the team acted in several major cases, including the indecency charges against football manager David Jones, R •Baker, the high-profile murder trial of an Asian taxi driver and several big actions against the police.
Strengthening the large civil group would do no harm. In personal injury, it acts principally for claimants, receiving instructions from the likes of Weightmans, Hill Dickinson and Hempsons. Last year, Bill Braithwaite QC featured several times in important reported cases and the set scooped an appearance in the infamous Callery •Gray case.
It is a sobering thought that, in 1995, Exchange was less than half its present size, and 2001 was a high watermark in terms of recruitment. Like most chambers, the focus is on organic growth at the lower end. Who knows; maybe one day soon Handley will be on the train to London to steal the work of the big boys down south.
Commercial chancery: 13 tenants, including all of the chambers' silks except Michael Lyndon-Stanford.
Company: 12 tenants, including joint heads Lyndon-Stanford and Charles Aldous QC.
Commercial litigation: six tenants, including silks Michael Lyndon-Stanford, Charles Aldous and three other silks.
Traditional chancery: four tenants. Christopher McCall QC plus three juniors.
Other areas include: insolvency (6); media & entertainment (2); property litigation (6); professional negligence (4); civil fraud (4); partnership (1); charity (3); pensions (1); tax (1); agriculture (1); banking (2); energy (1).
This year looks set to be a good one for Maitland: the set has a raft of major instructions on its books, discussions are underway internally about merging with another set, it is actively seeking new premises on a single site and there are plans to strengthen further its existing practice areas, particularly the breadth of its international work. Almost a year to the day since Maitland was formed out of the merger of commercial chancery sets 13 Old Square and 7 Stone Buildings, the groundwork has been laid to cement its position as one of the bar's top 10 sets.
The Lawyer's Bar Top 30 2001 placed Maitland eighth for turnover, equal with 3 Verulam Buildings at £14.5m, and just one place behind Wilberforce, its nearest rival among the commercial chancery sets. Serle Court, the other leading commercial chancery set, came joint thirteenth on £12m.
The merger has enabled Maitland to expand into new areas of practice such as charities, pensions, energy, tax, agriculture and work generated by the new regulatory powers of the Financial Services Authority (FSA). It is hoped that any future merger (discussions are purely internal at this stage) would enable the set to expand these areas of practice.
Cross-fertilisation has worked in other ways. Peter Bennett, Maitland's chief executive, recently compared the volume of work handed to 7 Stone and 13 Old Square by several top law firms with the amount sent to Maitland. He discovered that in less than two years the firms had almost doubled the number of barristers they were using at Maitland.
In addition to attracting more work, the merger has also enabled barristers and administrators to become far more business-like. First, it modernised its clerking and staffing by replacing the system of senior clerks earning a percentage of chambers' income with one in which all staff, except the most junior, are paid a basic salary plus a performance-related bonus of up to 14 per cent. Business psychologist company CGR was hired to advise on the implementation of this new system.
Catherine Newman QC, who drove the talks between 13 Old Square and 7 Stone, says: “CGR encouraged us to start talking to one another about what barristers expect from staff and identified the importance of training and everyday communication.” This has encouraged a more open management style, leading to the introduction of an intranet, which includes financial, management and legal information, and email for client and internal communication.
In order to attract the best possible graduates, from October Maitland will pay pupils £30,000 for their pupillage year and guarantee that those hired as tenants will earn £70,000 over their first two years of tenancy.
The set still operates out of two sites, but discussions are taking place with Lincoln's Inn about moving to a single site. However, the set has not ruled out moving to another inn, which, given that Lincoln's Inn is considering increasing chambers' rents by around 40 per cent, might not be such a bad idea.
This, though, is a longer term ambition. In the immediate future, minds are focused on consolidating its client base and increasing income. The set is happy with the volume of work in its core practice areas of commercial chancery, commercial litigation, company and traditional chancery. Insolvency work has not been buoyant, although any recession should remedy that. Property litigation is strengthening and media and entertainment is solid, thanks to the efforts of junior counsel Simon Barker and Edmund Cullen. Also, silks Charles Aldous, Hazel Williamson and Christopher Pymont, leaders in professional negligence, are also kept busy with this work, which is currently one of the busiest areas of practice at the bar.
There are also plans for reinforcing the set's international practice, which currently represents just 7-8 per cent of its overall work. Increasing chambers' involvement in litigation in Hong Kong, Singapore, the Channel Islands and the Cayman Islands is attractive to barristers, both financially and for the work's interest value.
The merger of 7 Stone and 13 Old Square created a third force among the commercial chancery sets, and if it can build on the success of 2001, it could mount a challenge not just to Wilberforce and Serle Court, but to the magic circle as well.
39 Essex Street
Commercial: this contributes 27 per cent of the set's turnover. Five tenants practise it as the main part of their work and a further four as the second most important. Leading lights are silks Simon Goldblatt and Vincent Nelson.
Public/administrative/judicial review: this makes up a quarter of the set's work. Ten full-time tenants on the team with a further three working part time. Silks Nigel Pleming, Wyn Williams and Robert Jay are the main players in this category.
Common law: this represents 48 per cent of the set's workload. Categorised to include personal injury (PI), clinical negligence, employment and general common law. Eighteen tenants do PI work in the main, one does predominantly employment and three do mainly general common law. Leading PI silks are Richard Davies and Michael Tillett. Silks Robert Jay and Richard Davies do general common law as a minor part of their practices.
Other areas include: insurance; tax; technology and construction; immigration.
Turnover at 39 Essex Street increased by 27 per cent in the last financial year to £12.75m, and chambers director Michael Meeson expects it to rise by a further 5-10 per cent in this financial year. This will put it on the cusp of the top 10 sets, ranked by turnover according to The Lawyer's Bar Top 30. Not bad for a common law set that in recent years has lost stars such as former bar chairman Lord Brennan QC to Matrix Chambers and Colin Mackay QC to the High Court bench.
But then the set is no longer a traditional common law set. Common law work continues to represent the core of 39 Essex Street's practice, contributing 48 per cent of turnover, but it can now also boast a successful commercial practice, which has grown rapidly and which last year generated a quarter of the chambers' income.
Over the last two years the set has diversified rapidly. It is building up solid expertise in media, sports and entertainment work with instructions from City firms, although this better reflects market growth rather than active touting for work. Insurance work has got off the ground, particularly as a result of instructions received from the Environment Agency. 39 Essex Street has also been involved in recent litigation around the reinsurer Equitas and the Society of Lloyd's.
Mirroring a national trend, tax work has risen. The extremely versatile head of chambers Nigel Pleming QC has been quick to scoop it up, becoming involved in a number of major cases for Customs & Excise in the last year.
Some of the credit for this growth is due to Meeson, who has been intensely engaged in the marketing of chambers. In the first four months of this year, he has planned trips to Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, and – as part of the set's efforts to develop international work – the Far East.
Among the set's silks, Simon Goldblatt QC is recommended for commercial work, acting in 2000 for the United Names Organisation in Lloyd's •Sir William Jaffray and for members of the Norwich Union Action Group in relation to non-disclosure.
Pleming, best known for his expertise in public law, is also a notable commercial practitioner. In 2000, he acted for Gtech in its joint effort to overturn the National Lottery Commission's (NLC) decision to reject Camelot's bid. The High Court then barred the NLC from appealing.
Meeson says the set has been able to develop its commercial practice by marketing its silks at the comparatively low rate of £300-£500 an hour for “the broad brush of commercial work”. He claims this is below those rates charged for equivalent work by the set's immediate rivals.
“In 2002 we won't review our current emphasis, but will go all-out for new work worldwide,” says Meeson. “Currently, our international practice is small. We do work for clients in Asia and are anxious to build on that.” The set plans to build deeper inroads into India, concentrating on commercial and insurance work and arbitration. Specifically, the set hopes to provide legal and accounting expertise to India when it will be forced to honour convertible currencies after joining the World Trade Organisation in 2003.
In the Far East, the focus is on Singapore and Hong Kong, and it plans to concentrate heavily on the West Indies in order to tap its commercial market.
Clearly, the world beyond Europe – where Meeson and the set's other strategists have no foreseeable plans to penetrate further – is another card the set can play in its sharp upward rise. After two years of growth in profitable practice areas, in particular commercial, 39 Essex Street is keen to promote its new strengths, which are pushing it up the ladder of chambers stars. 2002 could prove a crucial year in that growth.
Head of chambers: Michael Lyndon-Stanford QC and Charles Aldous QC
Juniors to watch
Nicholas Peacock: regularly instructed directly by the Financial Services Authority and acting as a junior on the DTI inquiry into the flotation of Mirror Group.
Matthew Collings: case history includes BCCI, Polly Peck, Atlantic Computers, Bermuda Fire & Marine and Maxwell. In 2002, he is already set down to appear in the Court of Appeal in relation to the West Ferry Printers case Express Newspapers v The Telegraph Group, in the Commercial Court in Cammell Laird Merseyside v Cammell Laird Holdings and in the large-scale asset recovery and partnership fraud case Phillips & Harland v Symes.
Notable cases of 2002
Professor Brian Clarke (executor of the will of Francis Bacon) v Marlborough Fine Art (London) & anor: instructed by Allen & Overy, Michael Lyndon-Stanford QC, Mark Cunningham QC and Siward Atkins in the Chancery Division for the second defendant. Francis Bacon's estate is suing in respect of the handling of his paintings during the last 24 years of Bacon's life. Due for trial in February for at least three months.
Deloitte & Touche Singapore v Coopers & Lybrand Singapore: John Nicholls in the Chancery Division, instructed by Herbert Smith, is acting as lead counsel, while in previous actions he was part of a team of three.
Barings (in liquidation) & anor v Coopers & Lybrand & ors: Charles Aldous QC in the Chancery Division, instructed by Slaughter and May.
The Society of Lloyd's v Jaffray: Charles Aldous QC in the Court of Appeal, instructed by Lloyd's of London.
Head of chambers: David Turner QC, Bill Braithwaite QC and Henry Globe QC
Number of tenants: 61
Number of silks: 11
Juniors to watch
Neil Cadwallader: a chancery expert described by one partner as “very intellectual and a very good chap. A safe pair of hands.”
David Casement: recommended by local firms in insolvency.
Notable cases of 2002
Union Music v Russell Watson: Edward Bartley Jones QC instructed by Wacks Caller.
Enron v Caxious: Mark Cawson QC.
Charles Connolly & George Kelly (Cameo murder): William Waldron QC is coming out of retirement for this Court of Appeal case. The murder took place in March 1949; both defendants were convicted of murder and have since died. The families are trying to clear their names.
R v Duvall: Brian Cummings is travelling to the Falklands for this week's hearing.
|39 Essex Chambers|
Head of chambers: Nigel Pleming QC
Number of tenants: 49
Number of silks: 10
Juniors to watch
Steven Kovats: has an established reputation for immigration, but now also building a name in public law. Last year, he acted in Farrakhan v Home Secretary and in Daly v Secretary of State for the Home Department.
Fenella Morris: a solid, all-round public, PI and employment practitioner who, not for the first time, is set to attract public attention when she takes Diane Pretty's case before the courts in Strasbourg. Recent cases include acting as junior to Robert Jay QC in R v Governor of HMP Dartmoor ex parte and she also appeared in R v Camden & Islington HA.
Notable cases of 2002
Saville (Bloody Sunday) Inquiry: Edwin Glasgow QC and David Bradly continue to act in the case.
PTSD litigation against the Ministry of Defence: claims arising from the Falklands War. Robert Jay QC and Sam Grodzinski. Listed in the Queen's Bench Division.
R (Pretty) v Director of Public Prosecutions: Fenella Morris involved in Diane Pretty's appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Society of Lloyd's v Jaffray: Simon Goldblatt QC in the Court of Appeal.
Ashworth Hospital Authority v Mirror Group: concerning whether the newspaper was compelled to disclose the identity of its sources. Nigel Pleming QC to appear before the Lords.