Bar and wide

The 4 Pump Court silks testing the water in Hong Kong could signal a new era of change at the bar


Alex Charlton
Alex Charlton

Unlike with law firms, international growth at the bar has been lacklustre. Why add burdensome overheads by taking office space overseas when barristers can easily jump on a plane? Resistance runs deep.

On top of the required investment, there are concerns that a permanent presence in another jurisdiction would signal an intention to compete with domestic practices, potentially blocking lucrative instructions.

Yet a handful of barristers have been willing to break with tradition. Last week six silks and seven juniors from 4 Pump Court revealed their intention to join a specialist arbitration outfit in Hong Kong while maintaining their London tenancy.

The mighty Hong Kong

Competition at the modern bar is ­intense. It is no good sitting back and expecting work to roll in on a bumper hourly rate. Modern counsel have to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

Economic pressures are also intensifying. When the Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger starts talking about the end of the hourly rate, barristers and their clerks are meant to sit up and take notice.

Falling rates, a dampened appetite for courtroom litigation in London and increasing overheads mean that to survive and compete chambers need to be efficient. The future of the bar depends on the brave few willing to put their best foot forward to drive change at home and ­overseas.

Reacting to 4 Pump Court’s move, commentators on TheLawyer.com summed up the consensus within the profession. “Setting up is one thing – getting work here is another,” posted one reader.

Another added: “It’s interesting that they are targeting Hong Kong rather than Singapore. The thinking may be that that gives a better entry into mainland China work. It also gives them first-mover status, which might be useful.”

Yet another questioned: “If this can be done, why have no London chambers done it before? Surely it’s an ­obvious move?”

Pump priming

Christopher Moger QC is leading the team. He hopes it will not only benefit his own practice, but also generate increased interest in 4 Pump Court.

“I hope our success will encourage other chambers members to become associates of the office at a later stage,” commented Moger.

Arbitration Chambers Hong Kong is expected to launch in the summer. While barristers will not be based there full-time as the market is tested, there will be opportunities for other members to follow suit.

Lure of the East

The new outfit is not an official annex of 4 Pump Court, but rather a new model put together by Australian ­arbitration specialist Gavin Denton with the aim of attracting more arbitration specialists to Hong Kong.

Since 2007 Denton has been at Hong Kong arbitration boutique Arbitration Asia as managing ­director. He is a vice-chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and a member of ICC Hong Kong’s arbitration committee. His plan is to build a home for international specialists, attracting counsel initially from South Korea and then hiring from Australia and the US.

The move comes as Hong Kong ­renews its focus on competing in the international arena by expanding its premises and upgrading facilities. Some suggest this is a response to Singapore’s Maxwell Chambers, which is steadily gaining traction.

Only 20 Essex Street has a full-time presence in Singapore, having launched there in 2009. Its rival, Essex Court Chambers, has an annex in the same building, although ­barristers split their time between London and Singapore.

According to one Inner Temple source, by comparison with the US legal giants the bar lags in the arbitration world. Its reluctance to embrace change has put it on the back foot when it comes to building international relationships.

The source said there was still some way to go, adding: “If we can get more appreciation of the skills of the bar in developing nations – such as from Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam – to attract them to arbitrate in ­Singapore, we’ll have done a

good job.”

 

Another way

Once upon a time 39 Essex Street ­harboured hopes of opening in Dubai. The Middle East market is no longer on trend and the set never fully ­realised its international dream. That said, it has not suffered as a ­result of lacking an office in the ­region, as ­instructions continue to roll in.

International expansion at the bar is a tricky business and not to everyone’s taste. But those that differentiate themselves by embracing change will be ahead of the curve.