New Blackstone heads to target competition work

Blackstone Chambers’ newly-elected heads Ian Mill QC and Thomas Beazley QC have a tough task building on the success of their predecessors at the top public and commercial law set.

During their seven-year tenure, Presiley Baxendale QC and Charles Flint QC grew turnover by 77 per cent, trading on the set’s existing public law expertise to attack the more mainstream commercial litigation market.

The young duo – Beazley only took silk in 2001, while Mill has been steadily building his reputation since becoming a QC in 1999 – also have to contend with mounting pressure on the commercial bar, both from a decline in High Court litigation and the bar’s law firm clients’ reluctance to share.

With several of the set’s rivals also facing succession issues over the next few years, the bar will be watching Blackstone’s progress with interest.

The set is among the best placed to exploit a changing marketplace, boasting expertise across a broad spectrum of commercial law disciplines, including fraud, sport, contract disputes and regulatory. That Blackstone has more Treasury junior counsel than almost any other set is testimony to the fact that it has not lost its focus on public law.

“We wanted people who are on the street, vibrant, and energetic enough to take things forward,” said senior clerk Martin Smith. Both silks put themselves forward as candidates and were elected on 14 October following a chambers vote.

Near the top of their agenda is beefing up Blackstone’s competition practice. “We’re very keen to develop this because so much of it is being repatriated to the UK,” said Beazley.

Although the set has already picked up instructions on recent telecoms and pharmaceutical competition cases, it faces a struggle to rival better-established rivals. As one City firm partner said: “We’ve gone to Blackstone less for competition work than Brick Court and One Essex.” Not to mention Monckton.

Although something of a latecomer to the competition arena, the set has a solid track record of developing new markets, particularly Eastern Europe and direct access – in its last Bar Top 30 submission, Blackstone counted no fewer than 90 organisations that regularly instructed the set direct.

It will be down to Mill and Beazley to keep this momentum going, both with European work – where it is also a comparative newcomer – and competition.

In contrast to law firms, where conflicts preclude acting for multiple parties, a chambers’ success can sometimes be measured by how many sides it can appear on in a single dispute.

At Blackstone, this success is most evident in the sports arena, where its members are promoted as being able to handle public, regulatory and employment law aspects – perfect to cover all the bases in a disciplinary hearing. Last February, Michael Beloff QC, Charles Flint QC and David Pannick QC were all involved in the inquiry into doping allegations against sprinter Dwain Chambers.

Beazley attributes Blackstone’s success at cross-fertilisation to the broad-based training provided. “In the pupillage year, members get training from all the practice managers, therefore they are able to handle all the specialities to offer a wide service over all our practice areas,” he said.

Here again is a problem that will not go away. With the top City law firms increasingly managing pleadings and interlocutories themselves, there is only a finite amount of work on which the junior bar can cut its teeth. If a chambers cannot sell itself on its advocacy expertise, what is left?

Baxendale approached this issue head-on by abandoning her successful court-based practice to become a full-time mediator. But with Brick Court recently adding Clifford Chance’s former litigation head Tony Willis to its leading team of mediators, Blackstone still has some way to go before it can count itself a leader in this field.

Beazley and Mill have not restricted themselves on which areas they want to see expanded: fraud, insurance and the regulatory sphere, as well as greater reach in the Caribbean and Europe, have all been added to the list.

The pair are now in consultation with all Blackstone’s tenants to determine what everyone wants. The tough bit will be combining the views and desires of 63 barristers into a coherent strategy that works for the chambers as a whole.