Keeping good company

Alison Clarke reports on the top practitioners and the leading chambers that specialise in company law

The company bar has been witness to some of the most high profile cases of the decade – such as BCCI, Guinness and the Maxwell scandal. Although the past few years may not have attracted as many headlines as earlier years, barristers specialising in company law have not exactly been twiddling their thumbs.

In particular, tenants specialising in insolvency report a significant upturn. Insolvency work has undergone massive changes over the past decade to become a specialism in its own right. Part of the reason lies in the increasing complexity of the law, which in turn leads to more court work.

Others confirm that company law cases in general shareholder disputes, directors disqualifications, winding-up petitions and company disqualification cases are on the increase. In particular, the liability of office holders (such as liquidators and administrative receivers) to creditors, is likely to prove a rich source of work.

The introduction of the Human Rights Act in October will also create more work for lawyers. Serle Court’s Michael Briggs QC says that the company directors disqualification procedure may be challenged under Article 6 (the right to a fair trial), as may other procedures under the Insolvency Act. He predicts that the almost inevitable introduction of limited liability partnerships will also bring about rich pickings for lawyers.

But how does one set of chambers distinguish itself from another to get the instructions for this growing volume of work? Tony Woodcock, litigation partner and head of the investment and regulation group at Stephenson Harwood, says that the charge rate is not the conclusive factor. “You develop a relationship with the clerks and individual barristers and that is important. They also have to be competent on paper and in court and be able to turn the work around quickly,” he says.

Paul Fleming, a partner in the business support and restructuring group at DLA, agrees. “It is important that the chambers has the necessary expertise, but it is also important to get on with the clerks, particularly if there is a disagreement over the fees,” he says.

Leading sets of company chambers include Erskine Chambers and 4 Stone Buildings (see boxes). Others worth a mention are Enterprise Chambers where Anthony Mann QC and Peter Arden in London have made a name for themselves, as has Hugo Groves in Leeds. Company work at Enterprise accounts for about 30 per cent of its fee income. At One Essex Court (where fee income from company law brings in between 30 and 40 per cent of the chambers’ income) Liz Gloster QC is well known for this type of work and Laurence Rabinowitz is making a name for himself.

At 3 New Square, Bernard Weatherill QC and Adam Deacock specialise in all aspects of company work, where the fee income from company accounts for about 15 to 20 per cent of its income. At Serle Court company fee income is about 25 to 30 per cent of the total. The set’s Michael Briggs QC and Alan Boyle QC are leading lights in company law, as are Victor Joffe, Philip Jones and Philip Marshall.

At the newly merged 13 Old Square/7 Stone Buildings Richard McCombe QC and Hazel Williamson are big names, and sit as deputy High Court judges in the Chancery Division. Also worth a mention are Nigel Davis QC, Christopher Parker and Guy Newey. Fee income from company makes up about 25 per cent of the set’s overall income.

Not surprisingly, just about all the sets (and individual barristers) picked out by solicitors and other chambers are based in London. About the only exception to that rule is Enterprise Chambers, which has one site in London housing 18 barristers and two annexes – one in Leeds with five barristers and one in Newcastle with three barristers.

City solicitors are reluctant to instruct barristers in the provinces, not least because they do not know them in the same way that they know those close at hand.

However, there are signs that this attitude is beginning to change. Sophie Elboz, a senior solicitor at CMS Cameron McKenna, says that if the case did not require an expert, she would be prepared to instruct a regional barrister who would be familiar with the practices of the court locally and how the judges like things done.

The pressures on company chambers to merge are much the same as those in the financial services sector. Helena Miles, the chief executive at Serle Court (the product of a merger in February between Serle Court Chambers and One Hare Court), says that competition is the chief source of pressure, as are the needs to invest in technology and marketing.

But Enterprise’s chambers director Elspeth Mills Rendall urges caution. “What really matters is not size, but the strategic fit, particularly for the specialist bar,” she says. “If sets are going to merge, they need to be sure that it suits their overall strategy and goals.”

4 STONE BUILDINGS

This set of chambers, which has 24 barristers, specialises in company law, which accounts for about 60 to 70 per cent of its fee income (with financial services work accounting for 20 to 30 per cent). Company work includes mergers and acquisitions, dealing with the formation and acquisition of companies and corporate finance and securities, with particular expertise in insurance company and building society law.

Head of chambers Philip Heslop QC has been involved in a number of high profile cases such as Guinness, BCCI, Maxwell, Polly Peck and Barings Bank. More recently, he acted for British American Tobacco (BAT) in the Chancery Division against Philip Morris over the rights to Marlborough cigarettes in the UK, and is appealing against the decision on behalf of BAT.

Other high profile barristers include Robert Hildyard QC, who has recently been involved in a transfer scheme regarding Sun Life in Hong Kong, and John Brisby QC, who is currently leading a team of juniors on behalf of the Bank of America, which is being sued by the liquidators of BCCI over its collapse. In the past, he has been heavily involved in Barlow Clowes, BCCI and recovering assets on behalf of the Maxwell pensioners.

ERSKINE CHAMBERS

With 23 barristers, technical company work accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of Erskine’s fee income. Company work includes issues arising from directors’ duties, shareholder disputes, schemes of arrangements and corporate reconstructions.

Although it has an outstanding reputation for advisory company work, it is less well known for its general commercial litigation, something it is trying to change. For instance, last year David Oliver QC, essentially a chancery/ commercial litigation silk, joined.

The set has worked on most of the recent large demutualisations, such as the London Stock Exchange. Sir Thomas Stockdale was recently involved in a scheme of arrangement seeking the approval of the court in the merger between Norwich Union and CGU.

Michael Todd QC appeared for Allied Domecq in the scheme of arrangement arising from the sale of its pub portfolio. David Oliver QC and David Chivers acted for Benfield Greig Group following complaints by executors for former Chelsea Football Club vice-chairman Matthew Harding’s estate about procedures for the compulsory acquisition of his shares following his death. In 1998, Leslie Kosmin QC successfully represented the solicitors in proceedings brought against them by Michael Flatley.