Leader

It’s so easy to get silk these days even Tony Blair could get it. Doesn’t matter that he hasn’t practised for eons, his pal Derry Irvine is making a novel play to destroy the junior bar – make them all QCs.

You don’t even need to have been doing it all that long: 20 Essex Street’s Michael Tselentis was only called in 1995. So okay, he might be a 54-year-old veteran of the South African courts and a former chairman of the Johannesburg bar… you get my point.

For this is the second year running a record number of barristers have been made QCs – 121 this time round, up from 113 last year and against an average of just 71 since 1994. With next year’s applicants likely to have a one in three chance of making the grade, it’s little wonder there’s been a mini-rush of solicitors swapping their City offices for Chancery Lane.

By that time, of course, the cachet of QCs could well have faded somewhat, leaving the system ripe for reform.

The real problem, though, is not the dinner party kudos of two little letters, but how to fill their owners’ time in between.

Commercial litigators on both sides of the profession continue to wait, many with mounting impatience, for the counter-cyclical splurge of ‘I want my money back, I’m going to take you to the Commercial Court’ reaction to a depressed economy. But litigation boom time just hasn’t arrived – a particular concern for the Americans, who have invested heavily in getting bums on dispute resolution seats (often from the bar). The same is doubly true for the criminal bar, which picked up about 30 new silks. They might be looking forward to the prospect of escaping the penury of junior legal aid rates, but how often can a leader be justified these days?

There can be no doubting the quality of the vast majority of the new silks – there is widespread consensus that this is actually a very strong collection of commercial barristers (of whom there are about 20 or so on the list).

But just where is the work going to come from? In an ever-contracting market there must be a few older silks looking around nervously at all the extra mouths to feed.

With fashion so fickle, clients may now look to test-drive the latest and often cheaper model, the Smouha, McQuater or the Lydiard.

After The Lawyer’s revelation that Lord Grabiner QC can still command fees of £1,000 an hour, there are clearly some that will not be too worried. But for an insight into how acute the pressures facing the upper echelons of the bar have already become, don’t miss next week’s issue.