Leader

The bar’s millionaires’ club has lost some of its lustre – it’s just not exclusive enough anymore. So those with the elephantine brains and oral charisma straddling the profession’s upper echelons have gone and raised the bar once again – if you’ll excuse the pun.

Grabiner’s natural exploitation of Pollock’s booked-out diary has resulted in his rates climbing to a staggering £3,000 an hour – unless you’re Freshfields that is, which appears to have an enviable ability to charm him into keeping it real.

Doubtless to Pollock’s chagrin, this has enabled Grabiner to join him in the most exclusive of clubs, reserved for £3m men. There is fierce professional rivalry – the two locked horns in last year’s Noboa litigation, when Grabiner stepped in to defend Mr Justice Langley’s honour after he was accused by his learned friend Mr Pollock of having made a “very stupid comment”. Although it is the man most obviously missing from this club, the third member of the bar’s elite triumverate Jonathan Sumption QC, who has more often crossed swords with Grabiner in the courtroom, memorably deriding his opposite number’s affidavits in the Equitable Life dispute.

Allegations of ‘fat cat’ barristers will inevitably follow these revelations of such stratospheric earnings – not least perhaps from those litigators at Clifford Chance who have moved to outlaw brief fees in a bid to cut costs (The Lawyer, 23 February). But it is CC’s efforts to move toward hourly and fixed rates, coupled with the massive post-Woolf drop in High Court commercial litigation, that are playing havoc with the bar’s ability, generally, to command mega-incomes.

The reality is that the millionaires’ club is shrinking. There exists a miniscule group of super-silks, who can command – and exceed – the top rates, whether it be arbitration, advisory work or the ever-diminishing diet of massive litigation, joined by a very small percentage of practitioners at the specialist bars – IP, tax and insolvency.

But beneath that, the vast majority of general commercial silks, who five years ago would have expected to march into the millionaires’ club, will now be restricting their aspirations to somewhere around half that figure.

Sumption’s failure to keep pace with his colleagues is not a sign he’s thrown in the towel. Simply that it requires a special year to make the leap. Save for the precious few, the bar is working against a backdrop of ever-diminishing returns. I’m afraid there’ll be no life membership to the £3m club.