No generalists required

The Bar is on the threshold of great change – mergers, specialisation and perhaps the closure of many smaller sets. Matheu Swallow asks how different chambers are facing up to an uncertain future.

The Lawyer last week revealed a shake-up at the Liverpool bar, with the merger of Martin's Building and The Corn Exchange to create the largest chambers in the North West.

For many, the move was the latest indication that the Bar is on the threshold of a merger mania that could see many chambers forced to join forces just to survive.

In June, Birmingham-based 7 Fountain Court and Priory Chambers merged to form St Philip's Chambers, the biggest set in the country, with 79 tenants.

In London, rumours of covert merger negotiations are rife, and the aggressive recruitment policies of many sets mean that targets of over 150 tenants by the year 2000 could easily become a reality.

At the other end of the scale, the collapse of top aviation and commercial set 5 Bell Yard earlier this year was also regarded as a sign of the times. As one top silk commented: "If you are a smallish set and you lose your stars, it may be very hard to carry on."

The face of the Bar is changing fast, as it seeks to adapt to the raft of legal services reforms, both present and future. With expanding sets seeking to enhance their rate of growth and cherry-pick the best of what the competition has to offer, staying in one set for life is no longer the norm.

"Big is beautiful" is a survival policy adopted by many chambers, but does it offer the only way forward, or is it simply a knee-jerk reaction to scaremongering predictions about the demise of the Bar?

Robin Butchard, practice manager at St Philip's Chambers, says size enables a set to remain competitive and maintain its price advantage over solicitor advocates. With first-hand experience of a successful merger, he should know.

Butchard believes the prospect of block-contracting for criminal defence work is just one more reason why chambers must be able to provide specialist teams with quality and experience.

Not everyone, however, believes that size is the sole arbiter of success. Senior clerk at Blackstone Chambers, Martin Smith, says: "We are not just in the business of selling volume, we are also selling brain power and personalities. The danger is that you become like a factory, which ultimately affects quality control."

Leading commercial and community law set Brick Court Chambers, for example, has decided to persevere with organic growth, placing greater emphasis on its recruitment policy.

It is not alone. Monckton Chambers is another set with no wish to become the Clifford Chance of the Bar. It offers specialist advice only in the areas of community, commercial, competition and public law – and is thriving.

Whichever path chambers decide to go down, one fact remains undisputed – specialisation, in some shape or form, is the key to the Bar's survival.

"Generalists are no longer required. Clients are much more sophisticated and know what service they want," says Smith.

However, he questions the viability of an exclusive practice: "You need to be able to diversify, because the market does change and it can be dangerous if you put all your eggs in one basket."

Pump Court and Gray's Inn Tax Chambers would argue that there is room for practices specialising in one area, but their situation is in many ways unique, in that tax is not dealt with in depth by many solicitors, and instructions come mostly from insurance firms.

New set 42 Castle Street in Liverpool also believes that niche chambers can survive. Its tenants recently came from the struggling Peel House to set up as personal injury specialists and will practise solely in that field.

"Barristers' chambers generally are getting bigger and bigger and problems can arise because they become factional," says Charles Feeny, head of the new set.

Rory Mates, a tenant at the chambers, believes that those who provide a quality service will prosper. But he warns that many sets are still not geared up to the pace of change. "Although there is still masses of work, the pinch will come," he says.

These reservations are supported by clerks at the major sets, many of whom have been busy recruiting trouble-shooters and practice managers, installing new technology, moving to modern premises and strengthening their chambers' specialist practice areas.

There is a huge difference between these success-hungry, marketing-friendly clerks and those in the smaller, general common law sets, and many believe that the apathy at the bottom end of the Bar could spell its downfall.

One head of chambers, whose set was one of the 11 removed from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) "preferred sets" list in November, does little to dispel that fear. Already set to lose three members of his chambers as a result of the CPS cull, he is resigned to the fact that "chambers like mine will suffer" and believes that the end of the Bar is in sight.

Most chambers axed from the CPS list were more positive, and initially responded by asserting they could adapt and that only a few individual barristers who were heavily reliant on prosecution work would suffer.

But proposed legal aid reform could also affect criminal defence barristers badly.

Many fear they might become expendable in the process, or at least forced to offer cut-price services to maintain a supply of work.

A recent survey by BDO Stoy Hayward director Mark Green shows the gravity of the situation. Although criminal work is second-lowest in terms of the average receipts it brings in – the highest coming from chancery and commercial work, it makes up 30 per cent of barristers' income. Chancery work makes up a mere 7 per cent.

However, the prospect of losing criminal defence work could still spell doom and gloom for many at the Bar, particularly the smaller general common law sets. These tend to have one or two barristers specialising in a particular field. If they leave to join larger sets, the remainder may well have little hope of survival in the new marketplace.

Although this may sound like a horror story, many at the Bar have been preparing for change and, overall, the feeling within the profession remains upbeat. Most people accept that reform is necessary and that the Bar has to downsize to compete. The question is how to adapt to survive.

Butchard of St Philip's Chambers, for example, believes that a national chambers along the lines of Eversheds is not far away. Indeed, Enterprise Chambers already has facilities in London, Leeds and Newcastle.

Charles Feeny, in his role as head of a new set, is one of those who remains confident of a future at the Bar. "We have a clear specialist profile and we have no doubt this is the right move," he says.

Julian Wilson, a former solicitor advocate and Denton Hall partner, and now a barrister at 11 King's Bench Walk, has faith in the Bar's future: "There will always be a specialist advocacy referral profession."

Many at the Bar clearly agree with him.