Life after Smith: Blackstone puts on a brave face
3 December 2007
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Less than a week after Blackstone Chambers senior clerk Martin Smith resigned dramatically, the sign writers have been in and scrubbed him from the set's members board. Gary Oliver's name is now up where Smith's used to be.
Smith's resignation, which was announced on the afternoon of 23 November, caused mass shock and bewilderment across the bar. The bar's grapevine didn't even have a whiff of his imminent departure.
Ten days on and the bar's gossip network appears to have failed, with the Inns still absolutely in the dark about why Smith left the set so abruptly. But the bar, not one to shy away from tittle-tattle, has come up with several theories.
The most trusted rumour is that Smith felt he had been sidelined: for the past few months he has been acting in more of a chief executive capacity rather than getting involved in the day-to-day running of the chambers.
But a friend of Smith's says: "Martin is not one to leave simply over wrangling for political positions. He would grin and bear it."
Both Smith and Blackstone have declined to expand on the reasons for the exit. Ian Mill QC, co-head of chambers, says: "It would be unfair to Martin if we commented on any gossip making the rounds."
Smith, however, insists that the reasons for his departure were personal and that he simply wanted a break. He did not rule out a return to clerking in the future.
Smith joined Blackstone in 1988 when it was still 2 Hare Court. At the time the set had less than half the number of barristers it has now. The set currently has 69 members, including 31 silks.
Mill and his co-head of chambers Thomas Beazley QC both feel that Smith, who became senior clerk in 1990, was instrumental in making Blackstone the chambers it is today.
Mill says that Smith, when he first became senior clerk, underwent a lot of frustration as barristers spilled out into several annexes.
Mill explains: "Tom and I, for instance, were halfway down Fleet Street, while others were in an annexe in Devereux Chambers. It meant that we didn't have a real sense of identity or cohesion, which Martin found frustrating."
Smith's irritations were finally alleviated in 1998, when 2 Hare Court became Blackstone. Beazley says: "The building gave us that much-needed identity and a renewed impetus for the future."
Both Mill and Beazley say that Smith, along with Oliver, who joined the set in 1990, helped turn the chambers around by advising it to focus on employment, commercial and public law.
"Chambers had a willingness to move ahead of traditional commercial shipping-type work and more into areas such as regulation, which now many others are trying to do," says Beazley.
It is this philosophy of keeping one step ahead of the pack that the joint heads believe Oliver and Blackstone's practice manager Julia Hornor will continue to provide the set.
Mill says: "Both Gary and Julia, who has been with Blackstone for 12 or 13 years, are loyal and dedicated to chambers. They both have exceptional experience and talent to take the chambers forward."
Beazley adds that there will be no management shake-up as a result of Smith's departure. "Instead we will continue to review the management structure as we do already and change it organically when the need arises," says Beazley. "We've absolute confidence in our management team as it is currently."
Others at the bar, however, believe Smith's departure will be a blow to Blackstone.
One senior clerk says: "Martin was the face of Blackstone and without him clients are going to feel insecure about their relationship with the set. Especially as it was kept so hush hush.
"Although my initial reaction was shock at the bar losing such a brilliant senior clerk, my second thought turned to the opportunities to win clients from Blackstone now that the set is destabilised."
Mill says the set has had many calls from clients during the past week and that the calls were uniformly positive.
"We haven't seen any signs that clients are uneasy about Martin leaving," says Mill. "Although Martin was one of the faces of the set, Gary has always been at his side.
"Martin and Gary together have made client focus key to our strategy and it will remain so."
So what of the future? For Blackstone it is about continuing its growth. The set has recently acquired the basement and ground floor of 2 Garden Court, which Beazley says will be able to accommodate Blackstone for another 10 years.