Matrix mavericks

When Matrix arrived at Gray’s Inn it was determined to move away from tradition towards a more innovative, cutting-edge model. So has the set achieved its aims? Katy Dowell reports

When it launched in 2000 Matrix Chambers was greeted by the bar and national press with all-out scepticism. The set was branded – it believes unfairly – as a bunch of human rights specialists working across criminal and civil law.

A decade on, The Lawyer visited the set to judge whether it has defied the critics and to discover what the self-proclaimed “different” Matrix has planned for its second – Legal Services Act-focused – decade.

Unfair perception

“We were unfairly labelled a human rights set,” claims Clare Montgomery QC, one of the set’s founding members. “That wasn’t why we were getting together – we were going against the flow of the bar. We wanted to have a broader base.”

Unfairly perceived or not, Matrix rode into town 10 years ago on the crest of the Human Rights Act wave. The publicity surrounding its launch was hardly hurt by the fact that it was the workplace of Cherie Booth QC, wife of the then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The political connections of Matrix meant it became dubbed the ’set of spin’, pumping out polished ideas with little obvious substance.

Some ideas, however, caught on. Matrix was launched as a ’legal practice’, with clerks renamed practice directors. The founding members, wanting to present themselves as an alternative to the traditional sets, pledged to go against the wider trend of specialisation at the bar and handle a mix of civil and criminal law.

“There were some real doubts about whether it would be successful,” reflects Matrix chief executive Lindsay Scott. “It has been. Others have followed us.”

Matrix’s neighbours at Gray’s Inn, 3 Verulam Buildings and 3-4 South Square are among those that have since ditched the clerking tag in favour of practice manager.

The aim was to appear more commercial, although many question whether it makes any difference, ­especially when leading sets such as Brick Court retain the traditional roles.

Matrix said it would stay “small but beautiful”, with a maximum of 30 members, and there would be a significant proportion of academic membership.

It was deliberately positioned as a revolutionary force bringing together defendant and claimant ­barristers working across a range of practice areas all bound together with what founding member Hugh Tomlinson QC describes as being: “Common values of liberal decency.”

A decade on, despite being home to a collection of top-ranking silks, others at the bar still look upon Matrix with misgivings, asking whether it has become successful as a business.

The simple answer to that is ’yes’. Matrix has successfully turned itself into the only household name set of chambers in the UK without any of the history of its peers.

But instead of sticking to the originally intended size, it now has 65 members, including nine academics.

“Ten years ago we wouldn’t have predicted we would be three times our original size,” says Tomlinson.

Scott says it is a constant dilemma: “We’ve always struggled with set numbers. It’s something we still struggle with. Do we want to be bigger? Should we grow? How do we do that?”

Matrix has also just produced its  highest earnings in 10 years, posting a revenue of £17.2m. That is a significant jump of 26.5 per cent on last year’s £13.6m and one that will come in handy for topping up the coffers.

Now its tenth anniversary has prompted it to consider the future. The caseload of members has shot up in recent years, taking up a lot of time that might once have contributed to the running of chambers.

Now members have been invited to revisit the original core values on which the set was founded and consider whether they are still relevant. Matrix has set up working groups and while nothing has been decided just yet, a new core constitution is currently being developed.

Still setting trends

Two themes up for discussion are recruitment and how it should adapt to the post-Legal Services Act world.

As a set with ’liberal values’ Matrix wants to break the mould in its recruitment strategy and reach out beyond the traditional routes to the bar. This is a long-term aim. Scott says one option could be working more closely with school-age ­children about the law.

Rabinder Singh QC, another founding member, says diversity should not be confused with tokenism. “There is no tokenism here,” Singh claims. “Cherie Booth, Karon Monaghan and Helen Mountfield – these are not just women, they’re brilliant silks.”

Tomlinson adds: “One thing we have done is bring in trainees from the Legal Services Commission and the Treasury Solicitors. One of the points about people who work in ­government is that they tend to have more diverse backgrounds.”

The implementation of the LSA should provide the set with opportunities to do more in this area. Scott says the Matrix model, while challenging to manage because it cuts across so many practice areas, is ­flexible enough to be evolved into a new creature that could again set trends at the bar.

“Going forward and making the most of the LSA, it means we can have a number of different ­businesses,” she argues, adding that one ­consideration might be to employ solicitors to ­support barristers. In effect, this would mean that those working in criminal law might be able to take block bookings, charging ­project fees while commercial barristers will ­continue to use the hourly rate. The set already employs ­paralegals in its less specialised areas, but this could be expanded to allow
it to employ lawyers who would ­support members.

“Each area would have its own profit margin and the overheads might be different,” Scott explains.

While many barristers working in traditional sets have shied away from making post-LSA commitments, Tomlinson believes it is something the bar must take seriously.
“The introduction of new business structures will bring new ways of working,” he says, adding that under a new structure the set would be able to employ solicitors.

A question of cash

Such moves would need the support of the set and considerable investment. One criticism levelled at Matrix by rivals over the last decade has been its failure to produce ­glowing results. But this year’s ­financials seem to have put paid to that carping.

Elsewhere, Matrix has consis­tently requested chambers contributions – ie, the payment made by each ­individual member towards the cost of running the set – of 20 per cent, ­making it one of the highest charging sets in the top 30. Only 39 Essex Street beat that figure in 2008-09 with 22 per cent. At the 2009-10 year-end that figure was cut to 17.5 per cent to reflect growing turnover.

Members are heavily supported by chambers in their pro bono work. Scott highlights barrister Julian Knowles, who is currently working with Reprieve pro bono managing all aspects of its work on death row cases around the world.

David Wolfe, another member, is working as a commissioner at the Legal Services Commission. Yet another member has spent a year in the Gaza Strip working with ­Palestinians on a pro bono basis. All ­projects must have the approval of all members.

In addition, all Matrix members contribute 0.4 per cent of their monthly income to the Matrix ­Causes Fund, which has raised more than £250,000 for charitable causes.
As one outsider observes, the set is heavily reliant on its top-earning members for cash. “Clare Montgomery is a leading advocate – she is brilliant,” he says. “Her income is incredibly important to the set. If  that were to drop it could be dangerous to us.”
Scott says that money is important for the running of the set, but insists, “Money isn’t the motivating factor for our members.”

Montgomery agrees. “We could do hundreds of cases and make loads of money, but we want to stay true to our values,” she says.

“Clare Montgomery and Ken ­Macdonald are our big, big earners,” Scott agrees. “They may be supporting non-paying members this year, but they would have the opportunity to go off at a later point and they would ­certainly be supported.”

Matrix’s commerciality, or lack of it, does create other issues. Certainly it has been a trigger point for ­people both joining and leaving the set over the years.

Greener pastures

In April last year the set suffered the departure of Heather Rogers QC to arch-rival Doughty Street, and ­competition junior Kieron Beal to another rival, Blackstone Chambers.

Meanwhile, Matrix practice ­director Amanda Illing, who was widely considered an instrumental force within the set, defected to Hardwicke Buildings on a mission to replicate her success at Matrix.

Nevertheless, Matrix was a big winner in the latest silks round with Alex Bailin, Raza Husain, Matthew Ryder and Helen Mountfield all becoming Queen’s Counsel. It is also home to the former director of ­public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, who rejoined in 2008 after a five-year stint in government.

When Matrix arrived at Gray’s Inn it was tagged as New Labour, not only because of Cherie Booth but also because members had been heavily involved with the formulation of the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

As Tomlinson comments, “We came into being on the back of a ­programme of innovation, then the Labour government got cold feet. Now there’ll be much more ­constitutional reform and I’ve no doubt we will be involved.”

When Matrix was established in 2000 the founding members were determined to create something new and innovative to give it the edge over its competitors. As the members have grown in prominence, so has their workload, something that has ­necessarily caused members to be distracted from the core model.

But with the LSA changes in its sights, Matrix has lost none of its appetite for embracing change. Its tenth anniversary presents the set with a timely opportunity to reinvent itself and once again upset the traditionalists with some innovative ­forward-looking plans.