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The regional bar has been continually derided for lacking the quality of its London-based rivals. Critics continue to berate the lack of "strength in depth" and "commercial expertise" to be found in the regions, but some chambers have started to look at alternative ways to combat the flow of work to the capital.
Manchester sets 9 and 28 St John Street, for example, have entered merger talks which if successful would create a 91-strong set, believed to be the third-largest chambers in the country (The Lawyer, 3 September). This would not only dwarf local rivals, but also create a cogent argument for keeping certain types of work in Manchester, particularly volume personal injury (PI), criminal and family work, in which both sets specialise. The same strategy has already paid off for London-based Crown Office Chambers, the set created last year from the merger of 1 Paper Buildings and 2 Crown Office Row. In its first year in practice, the specialist professional negligence and PI set surged into The Lawyer's Bar Top 30 with a turnover of £13.5m, up from a combined £10m at the time of the merger.
The move by the St John Street sets is symbolic of current activity at the northern bar, particularly among sets in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Cooperation between sets has improved, supplying a steady stream of rumours of mergers and associations, largely as a result of greater competition for work between the cities. 9 St John Street, for example, already has an association with 42 Castle Street, a 10-strong Liverpool-based set.
Relationships between Liverpool and Leeds are also very good, with lots of informal agreements and links between chambers. Leeds and Manchester are on different circuits, but barristers based in one of these cities find that a lot of their work is in the other. Here, the tendency of many northern chambers towards non-place-specific names has helped to create a brand that can move easily between cities.
In order to combat criticism from clients that there were no northern-based sets offering specialist commercial advice, Manchester's Merchant Chambers (David Berkley QC) was established in 1996. It started with just four barristers, but in the last two years its turnover has increased by 40 per cent and there are now 10 tenants. Rather than create an association, the set is now keen to establish a presence in another city in the North, probably Leeds.
Perhaps because of the uncertain reputation of the regional bar, most commentators were surprised when two years ago Manchester was awarded 10 new silks. Question marks were raised at the time over why so many silks were awarded from one place and where the extra work would come from to keep them busy. One of the new silks was Merchant Chambers' head Berkley. "Every new silk has a stage where they are neither one thing or another, but Manchester definitely has quality work," he says. "Although like any provincial city, we have to fight off competition from London."
The regional bar has been one of the principal beneficiaries of the success of mercantile courts. Established in Leeds and Manchester in 1990, their success has calmed many fears that courts outside London were simply unable to cope with quality work, let alone the region's barristers. So successful have they been that Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle upon Tyne have since followed suit.
Judge Kershaw QC and Judge Hegarty QC of Manchester's mercantile court are widely respected in the area, described by one barrister as "sharp cookies". Judge Hegarty in particular is described as being "very stylish - he puts people at ease and gets it right most of the time", and Judge Kershaw is said to be among the rare breed of judges who can be found in court at 6pm on a Friday.
Of the circuit judges that sit in the chancery division, Judge Maddocks, who sits in Manchester, Liverpool and Preston, is highly praised by those who appear before him; and Judge Gilliland QC, who normally sits in Salford hearing technology and construction cases, is noted for his ability to pick up complex commercial cases.
In Liverpool, too, the judiciary is highly praised, although there is a feeling that there are not enough judges to cover the workload.
One of the bar's greatest fears is where the next generation is going to come from, with the junior bar's traditional training ground being decimated by the growth of solicitor-advocates and alternative forms of dispute resolution.
However, here the regions may just have the advantage over their London rivals. For those seeking a pupillage in the North, it is thought that the experience gained in the first few years surpasses London.
One new tenant points out that juniors in provincial sets often land higher-profile cases and better practical hands-on experience in the first few years, although opportunities to specialise are more limited and most, at least initially, have a general common law practice.
Certainly, one set is determined to halt the brain drain to London. Exchange Chambers, with offices in both Liverpool and Manchester, is offering juniors guaranteed earnings of £50,000 over the first two years of tenancy in the form of an interest-free loan. However, one head of chambers at a prominent North-West chambers comments: "I'd be disappointed if someone of two year's call were not able to earn a living wage. I give a target of £35,000."