Ahead of the game

However, given that the company's 91 shareholders are still self-employed barristers in the traditional mould, managed by two chief clerks, Clive Witcomb for crime and newly promoted Matt Fleming on civil and commercial, has anything really changed? Has St Philip's really transformed itself into the face of a modern and transparent bar or is it just another regional set, albeit a very large one?`There is no doubt that in the three years since the set was formed out of the merger between No 7 Fountain Court and No 2 Fountain Court the set has changed dramatically. Its turnover increased by 15 per cent in 1999-2000 and is on course to rise by a further 20 per cent this year – across all practice areas – to almost £12m.`Currrent trends would have us believe that civil and criminal practitioners cannot reside together, with the result that in the past two years several sets have demerged, most notably London-based Cloisters. St Philip's, however, continues to pursue multiple product lines, general civil, including family and personal injury, criminal and commercial.`St Philip's was also among the first chambers to employ a chief executive, another strategy that is now viewed by many as a passing fad. After all, since the departure of Ric Martin from Fountain Court earlier this year (The Lawyer, 31 July 2000), none of the magic circle of commercial chambers employs one. The consensus is that the role was a short-term administrative post simply necessary to help chambers gain BarMark, the Bar Council's so-called quality standard. Many of those to have tried to fulfil a chief executive's role have left in frustration, unable to make any fundamental changes and hamstrung by a lack of real executive power.`In January, St Philip's recruited its second chief executive, Paul Wilson, formerly commercial development manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Wilson took over from Vincent Denham who is now filling a similar position at Westminster law firm Radcliffes. Given that Wilson has by far the best office in the building, a claim to genuine executive control might not be unfounded.`To accommodate its broad range of working practices and vastly differing earning power, the set offers its 91 tenants – who are all equal shareholders in St Philip's Holdings, the company that owns St Philip's Chambers – four different rents plus a fixed percentage charge understood to be 15 per cent. The aim is to reduce this to 11 per cent, which would make it among the very lowest percentage charges at the bar.`The trouble is, of course, that Bar Council practice rules continue to prevent chambers from making any more radical changes to the way they run, such as entering into partnership or conducting litigation. This may soon change, of course, after the Office of Fair Trading's much-debated report into the professions. The Bar Council has set up a committee under the leadership of Sir Sydney Kentridge QC and which also includes St Philip's head of chambers, Rex Tedd QC, to prepare its response. But whatever its verdict it is almost inevitable that the status quo will not be preserved, potentially opening the way for creative chambers to take advantage of any relaxation of practice rules.`It is in crime where the greatest pressure is being exerted on the bar. The future for criminal practitioners, both barristers and solicitors, is at best uncertain and more radical strategies are being formulated.”It's absolutely obvious that, if we sit still, in four or five years' time we'll be dead. That is simply not an option,” says Alistair Young, a junior criminal practitioner, who also sits on the St Philip's board.`It is perhaps a little surprising to find that St Philip's even has capability in crime let alone that it is trying to build it up. After all, most law firms have long since demerged their civil and criminal practices, finding profitability and working methods incompatible. But with nearly 40 specialist criminal tenants, including two silks, and turnover increasing in line with the rest of the set, everyone seems happy to coexist. Nevertheless, it is likely that it would be the criminal group that would be the first to take advantage of any future changes to the bar's practice rules.`Although so much debate has concentrated on the impact of solicitor-advocates, there is still little evidence to show that they are taking serious chunks of work away from the bar. Should barristers be allowed to conduct litigation, however, it might be solicitors who face the backlash.`”We may think in 10 years why we let ourselves be messed around by solicitors,” says Bill Davis QC, head of the criminal practice group and chairman of St Philip's Chambers. It seems likely to me that the criminal bar may have to turn themselves into quasi-solicitors, employing paralegals, and that would be a sea-change.”`Given the criminal group's size compared with the bulk of small firms that instruct it, a St Philip's offering to conduct litigation in addition to supplying advocacy services might appear an attractive proposition for a Legal Services Commission, keen to block-contract work out to a single service provider.`”A one-stop shop? If the opportunity arose, and if it was an opportunity, we'd look at it closely, and if that meant employing legal executives, we would,” says the chief clerk for crime Clive Witcomb. In the meantime, Witcomb is happy to be pushing the set into non-traditional areas of work, such as serious fraud, trading standards, health and safety and courts martial.`Davis says: “The old criminal ethos of us taking anything that comes through the door is to an extent still true, but if the criminal bar is to have a future it has to concentrate on specialist advocacy services.”`The needs of commercial practitioners are not as pressing as their criminal colleagues, but no less difficult. The persistent criticism of the regional bar is that it lacks quality. There has always been the odd highly rated specialist commercial practitioner domiciled in the regions, but usually operating without any back-up. The question of resources was the reason that Avtar Khangure, one of the few specialist insolvency practitioners in Birmingham, joined St Philip's from local rival No 6 Fountain Court (The Lawyer, 26 February, 2001).`Khangure says: “I was the only one at Number 6 doing that kind of work. The set has been very good to me but I was doing my own thing with little or no back-up. There have been problems at Number 6 where if I couldn't do it there was no one else available.”`The highly rated Khangure, whose clients include all the main law firms and accountancy practices in Birmingham, has joined a commercial team that is now more than 30-strong, including three full-time silks and one part-time. As a consequence of his arrival, St Philip's is establishing a specialist insolvency team within the commercial group which Khangure has been nominated to head.`Head of the commercial group John Randall QC, probably the leading commercial silk at the regional bar, believes that St Philip's is beginning to establish a solid core of quality practitioners. He says: “Overall, I would guess that 20-25 per cent of work of the largest half a dozen firms in Birmingham that is within scope of the regional courts goes to them,” he says. Of the chancery and mercantile work that goes to local counsel Randall estimates that St Philip's commands about 80 per cent.`There are two stumbling blocks that St Philip's must overcome. The first is persuading quality practitioners, almost exclusively based in London, to join the team when, as Randall concedes, cases involving sums of more than £25m will continue to go to London. Randall, though, is confident that the set can tempt London stars to join it, with some negotiations currently underway.`The second is convincing the leading Birmingham firms – Wragge & Co, Pinsent Curtis Biddle, Eversheds, DLA and Hammond Suddards Edge – and their clients, that the work can be handled by the Midlands' legal infrastructure.`It is all very well having a well organised, well run set of chambers but it can only remain financially viable so long as the work is there to service it. Regional sets, especially in the commercial sphere, have historically had to live off the scraps that London discards. Law firms complain that the quality of the regional bar has never been high enough to entrust with decent work. But who is to blame? Many have traditionally blamed the lack of high-quality work on the inability of the regional courts to handle it. “When I started no one [locally] was getting work,” says Khangure.`In Birmingham at least this view is changing and Khangure says that Wragge & Co in particular now tries to keep as much work local as possible and the other leading firms are also increasingly looking to the local courts for certain types of litigation. Birmingham's courts now have specialist jurisdiction in chancery, mercantile and technology and construction and there is even talk that the local supervisory judge, Mr Justice Jacob, is keen to set up a specialist patents court in the city.`Birmingham's courts have one other advantage: the growing reputation of their judges, two of whom are former solicitor-advocates: Judge Alton, a former Pinsents partner, and Judge Kirkham, a former DLA partner.`However, despite the new-found faith in regional courts, there is still a long way to go. “Cases over £25m will predominantly continue to go to London, unless a full Commercial Court starts operating out of regional centres,” says Randall.`One of the problems is uncertainty. Birmingham's Chancery Court, for example, has a full High Court supervisory judge in Mr Justice Jacob, but unfortunately the same is not true in the Mercantile Court. “It would be a big boost to the Mercantile Court if there was a system in place that had the equivalent of a supervisory High Court judge,” says Randall. “I would be fully confident that, in one year's time, we would be able to get a High Court judge in place in the Mercantile Court.” If that were to become a reality, Randall predicts the volume of £10m cases going on in Birmingham would increase and the market would open up for specialist commercial barristers based locally.`St Philip's has made great strides to develop its reputation, not just as an 'OK' set of regional chambers, but a set that offers specialist services in the same vein as London sets. It is clearly ambitious and those running the set are prepared to consider radical alternatives. Head of chambers Rex Tedd QC says: “Inevitably, we will face some difficult choices over the next three or four years, and our response will depend upon the perameters of the market in which we are operating. If the rules that govern professional practice change we would investigate whether we would need a base in London or other cities.”`Tedd says that 20 years ago he might have pursued the 36 Bedford Row model of opening annexes in regional centres but, given that the London-based set has just announced that it will be closing these annexes, he has changed his mind. Establishing a base in London is now Tedd's preferred strategy, but he must first wait on the effect of the OFT's report.`”If the bar decides to radically amend the basis upon which it takes business, especially in terms of conducting litigation and direct access, we would inevitably have to rethink how we would meet a great opportunity,” he says.`For now St Philip's remains a regular set of chambers, albeit an increasingly successful one, with all the inherent difficulties and problems that presents in today's market. To make further serious progress St Philip's needs change on two fronts – changes to practice rules and futher improvements to Birmingham's courts. The trouble may arrive when the time comes to convince 91 shareholders, who all have equal voting rights, that they need to put the management's radical initiatives into practice.`It will be interesting to see whether the tenants will continue to share the management's vision if those initiatives go ahead. n“St.Philips Operational Structure`St Philip's Holdings`All 91 practising barristers bought 1,000 shares each, giving them one shareholding and one vote. St Philip's Holdings owns St Philip's Chambers Ltd but is essentially just a holding company.“St Philip's Chambers`There are 14 board members with representatives from each of the practice groups, and head of chambers Rex Tedd QC and chief executive Paul Wilson, who was elected to the board two weeks ago.“Core Committee`Power is devolved from St Philip's Chambers Ltd to this operational committee. This is chaired by Bill Davis QC and includes representatives from all practice groups plus Wilson and one of the two chief clerks on rotation and one other from the main board. This is essentially an advisory committee which allows Wilson some level of autonomy.“Management team`Paul Wilson, the two chief clerks, the new IT Manager, Keith Lyall, and, once recruited, a head of finance and an operations manager.