Despite the trend for City firms to handle a growing amount of advocacy-related work themselves, the role of the commercial Bar heavyweight remains undiminished.
To describe the top silks in this broad area of law is to focus on superlatives. "They have got to be bright, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of commercial law, and a feel for what will work with a judge," says one lawyer.
It is clear that solicitors are becoming more demanding of counsel. "The Bar has to be more responsive these days," notes one solicitor. "That's a message not all barristers yet appreciate."
Despite this, the star culture remains strong and fees remain a sore point. Silks from a clutch of chambers – Brick Court Chambers, Essex Court Chambers, One Essex Court, Fountain Court, One Hare Court, and 3-4 South Square – dominate every solicitor's "A" list.
Good silks average £350-£500 an hour; but the top three – Anthony Grabiner QC (One Essex Court), Jonathan Sumption QC (Brick Court Chambers) and Gordon Pollock QC (Essex Court Chambers) will not get out of chambers for less than £800. And that is after the "negotiable" brief fees. "Your case must be worth at least £100m if you want to instruct this lot," says a chambers clerk.
Grabiner himself is "very commercial" and "regards himself as a trusted adviser" but can be "a bit of a hothead… he thinks if he signs something, the other side will settle". Sumption is "intellectually without comparison… first class", while Pollock is "very tenacious, creative and thorough".
Generally, the Bar's true heroes inhabit either of the twin Valhallas of commercial or criminal practice. Occasionally, they straddle both. Sydney Kentridge QC of Brick Court Chambers is the perennial deity of the commercial Bar. "Fantastic trial lawyer", "wonderful", and "unparalleled" are the comments he attracts.
A South African, Kentridge acted for Steve Biko's family in the inquest into his death in police custody. One of the greatest commercial silks, he continues to impress.
But not every titan attracts such adoration. "Dour" Ian Glick QC of Grabiner's One Essex Court can be "gloomy to work with… he's good, but you wouldn't ask him for a best man speech". Colleagues Elizabeth Gloster QC and Terence Mowschenson QC are rated very highly.
Other favourites include cigar-puffing Christopher Clarke QC, the head of Brick Court Chambers. Regarded as "brilliant and affable", he is "excellent… able and a model of courtesy – a real gentleman".
Pollock's Essex Court Chambers colleagues, Stewart Boyd qc, Ian Hunter QC and Andrew Hochhauser QC are also mentioned in dispatches.
Fountain Court's head of chambers and former Bar Council chairman Peter Scott QC is "a heavyweight, tough guy… he's listened to".
His colleague Peter Goldsmith QC, another former Bar Council chairman, is "phenomenally bright and one of the best… he can pick up any new subject and make good points".
Michael Crystal QC's set at 3-4 South Square remains the first name in insolvency matters, with Crystal himself, Gabriel Moss QC and Simon Mortimore QC regarded as first rate at most commercial work. "They're extremely consistent."
Michael Burton QC, head of Littleton Chambers, is "a very good practitioner", praised for being "always good value, fast-working and very approachable… he carries a lot of weight with clients". Colleague Daniel Serota QC "has a Rottweiler reputation, but is very easy to work with".
Some silks still deliver a top-quality service, "providing value for money and an alternative to the pouting Madonnas of the magic circle". Such is Richard Southwell QC, head of 1 Hare Court. Undimmed by 40 years at the Bar, he is "a thorough and very safe pair of hands" and is "good value, not charging as much as some people 15 years his junior".
And Jules Sher QC of Wilberforce Chambers, another South African, is a "hidden jewel". Robin Potts QC of company specialist Erskine Chambers is "a favourite for shareholder disputes" as well as banking and insolvency, and head of chambers Richard Sykes QC is "a top advisory silk on stock exchange issues".
Philip Naughton QC, head of 3 Sergeant's Inn, is a "good details man".
Edwin Glasgow QC, head of 39 Essex Street, and colleague Richard Davies QC along with Peter Roth QC, Nicholas Paines QC and Paul Lasok QC, all of Monckton Chambers, are also "highly rated".