Mind your manners at the northern bar

Barristers' chambers on the north west circuit are winning fresh praise and new work, yet it is the little things that see them lagging behind their London contemporaries.

“I know it's a little thing and it's superficial,” sighs one Manchester solicitor, “but they're not as good with the coffee and sandwiches”.

On a lack of chocolate biscuits have great empires foundered.

Complaints about common courtesy were frequent from solicitors in London when quizzed about chambers' performance a couple of years ago.

London solicitors were often more upset that no one took their coat, or that they were left waiting in a hallway, than by the performance of a barrister.

The message that the London Inns quickly learned and that northern chambers seem slower to catch on to is – “I am your customer, start treating me like one”.

More encouraging for the north west bar is the growing enthusiasm among firms for local talent.

Barristers Mark Turner QC, Patrick Field, Peter Cowan, Charles Fenny and Nigel Gilmour QC are considered unmatched for their advocacy skills.

Chambers such as King Street, Deans Court, 40 King Street Exchange and Oriel Chambers win hard-earned praise.

Problems persist though.

The first is the old chestnut of specialism, and the perceived need to go to London to find the right silk for the job.

In Liverpool – a city with a wealth of advocacy talent hardened by a heavy workload of insurance litigation – criticisms about the lack of skill grind on barristers.

“If you are comparing like for like in terms of quality and experience, Liverpool will match or beat a London equivalent,” says head of Oriel Chambers, Andrew Sander.

But some solicitors say that it is international clients in particular who automatically ask for the London bar because of its global reputation.

Others say that they can get a better deal down the road. “The Manchester bar is quite expensive,” says one senior partner damningly.

In response to these concerns, northern chambers such as 40 King Street in Manchester are revamping their image and brand.

“We have to be as professional as we can,” says the set's senior clerk, William Brown. “We very much keep a close eye on our charge out rates.”

However, some north west sets are buckling under the weight of government legal reform and increased competition.

“I can see there being some casualties along the way, it's already starting to happen,” says Brown.

Senior clerk at Cobden House,Trevor Doyle, says that family work across the board has gone down by 5 per cent as more firms use solicitor advocates in house.

Low grade civil work is dipping as well.

“An awful lot of chambers are very anxious about block contracting and franchising. There's an air about town. Small chambers are talking about merger to create 'departments' with, say, five members in each department to attract work,” says Doyle.

The merger between Liverpool's Corn Exchange and Martin's Building, and the recent arrival of 13 Peel House members to join another local set in Oriel Chambers, highlights an emerging trend.

And as The Lawyer revealed last week, 21 tenant Manchester House Chambers and 26 Queens Chambers are in merger talks.

Much of the merger movement has been sparked by the fears of criminal barristers as the Crown Prosecution Service clamps down on the number of chambers it uses.

However, Tom Handley, practice manager at Exchange Chambers, says that the mergers are more a blip than a trend.

“One or two firms merge and people start looking around, but I don't think there will be any more mergers”, he says

Handley adds that work from big commercial firms has grown “incredibly”.

Others, such as David Berkley, head of Merchant Chambers in Manchester, question the wisdom of merging.

“We came away from a big set to form a small set. I can understand the argument for merger, but the key for the coming year is the ability of smaller sets to offer flexibility and specialism,” says Berkley.

Both Sander and former Peel House head of chambers, Nigel Gilmour QC, argue that through strengthening their personal injury and family teams, they are able to offer specialism within a broad set.

But then what do the solicitors – the customers – make of the shake-ups occurring on the north west circuit?

Commenting on the mergers, a senior Liverpool solicitor says: “They care about it more than we do. We don't instruct sets of chambers, we instruct individuals.”

Individuals aside, those north west chambers wishing to succeed in the high-tech competition of the 1990s, may do well to have a sandwich and a cuppa ready the next time a solicitor comes to call.