North West bar work boom

Despite the difficulties faced by the bar, sets in the North West have no shortage of work. Fennella Quinn reports.

As Maundy Thursday comes round again, all eyes are focused on the Lord Chancellor's list of new silks.

Last year, 10 new QCs were made up for the North West bar. But it is not only the addition of silks that is changing the complexion of the most prominent provincial circuit.

The Treasury has recently “refreshed” its list of counsel, awarding the honour of Treasury devil status to an unprecedented number of barristers in Manchester and Liverpool, most notably 11 from 40 King Street in Manchester and five from Oriel Chambers in Liverpool.

But the overall landscape has also changed dramatically in the past couple of years, particularly in Liverpool.

While Manchester has lost Manchester Chambers and gained Merchant Chambers, Liverpool has lost four of its 14 sets.

The first casualties were two chancery sets – Queen Avenue and North John Street – each containing around eight practitioners.

A small number from each set moved to Exchange Chambers while the remainder went to 14 Castle Street.

Just six months ago, The Corn Exchange and Martin's Building merged to become 7 Harrington Street, now the largest set in Liverpool with 60-plus barristers.

Another well-respected common law set, 1 Peel Court Chambers, fell foul of a derailed merger and ended up disbanding altogether. A large chunk of its criminal practice decamped to Chavasse Court Chambers and most of the remainder went to Oriel Chambers with their senior clerk.

According to Oriel's chambers director Sarah Cavanagh, the move has been an extremely harmonious one, describing it as a “match made in heaven”.

This sense of relief is perhaps prompted by a prevailing herding instinct, particularly at the Liverpool bar.

Many smaller sets feel vulnerable, and are joining others in order to ensure safety in numbers.

Exchange Chambers practice manager Tom Handley explains: “With the new tax legislation changes [whereby barristers now have to pay tax on fee notes rather than receipts], Bar Mark requirements and the introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules, there is a lot of nervousness at the bar. They feel they'll be stronger in bigger chambers – it's a protective thing.”

Now with 50 on board, Exchange Chambers is in a good position, which it hopes to build on even further with a new office in Manchester to service clients there, rather than have them “traipse over to Liverpool”.

But there are several other elements at play which are no doubt making local barristers reassess their situation.

The Government has introduced some uncomfortably foggy ideas about block contracting, whereby solicitors could be contracted to provide a block service in family and criminal matters.

Even more concerning is the complete culture change which has shaken up the entire bar and forced it to become more aggressive and business-like.

40 King Street's chambers director Guy Davison puts most of the bar's ills down to three things – high overheads, outmoded business practices and overpaid clerks.

“There's a lot of thrusting for change because traditionally barristers' sets are so anachronistic in the way they structure themselves,” he says.

His chambers addressed the problem seven years ago when its clerks set up a separate partnership which supplies clerking services on a commercial basis. Davison claims that the proof is in the pudding – income has gone up eight times, while numbers have only increased by 20 per cent since the partnership was established.

He says: “We don't have that provincial chip on our shoulders in that we think all good work goes to London. I think there'll be less sets in four or five years' time, but not less barristers. There'll be a revision of structures and more multidisciplinary practices. Already there's much more business efficiency going on.”

Davison views the advent of Bar Mark as particularly important. “In the real world, clients have a choice. Client focus and client care is something a lot of them want and expect,” he says.

Likewise, David Berkley QC, head of rival commercial set Merchant Chambers in Manchester, claims that the days of some barristers sitting on their papers for months while their colleagues down the corridor process them in a fortnight are long gone.

“The individuality of the bar has tended to lead to a great deal of inconsistency in approach,” he says. “But the secret of this set is that the emphasis is on effective advocacy, taking responsibility for the outcome of litigation and meeting your commitments.”

Despite the changes rocking the profession, no one at the North West bar could deny that everyone is extremely busy.

Handley says: “The bar in Liverpool is very busy, it's alive and well. Criminal work tends to stay on circuit and silks remain in Manchester and Carlisle, they don't tend to go off circuit.”

In fact, with the intractable problem of too many new recruits and not enough room to recruit them, the North West bar is enjoying picking off star juniors.

There is also plenty of work for them, unlike their southern compatriots. According to Handley, the advent of advocacy rights for solicitors has not proved a problem in the North West, where solicitors are finding that court appearances and the associated delays and dead time are not cost effective.

Handley says: “I think the secret is that the levels are right. In London it seems that there are too many barristers in all types of work. When we do a ring-around, there's always people available. A concern would be that if too many people wanted to come to the provinces then the levels would rise.”

Handley reports that he receives around 300 pupillage applications annually and 20 to 30 tenancy applications at all levels every year.

With a large amount of commercial work including banking, insolvency, company and chancery work at the North West bar, it is no wonder that barristers are busy.

Norman Wright of Oriel Chambers claims that big players who in the past would have been inclined to go to London, now feel they can get as good a service locally.

“There's no comparison on price,” he says. “For a lot of commercial work solicitors are now looking in their own back yards.”

This change has come about due to several factors. The stranglehold on legal life that tradition has enforced is being weakened by the onset of market forces, while value for money has become far more crucial. And according to Wright, insurers are part of the momentum to keep costs low.

And then there is the general trend away from the opulent spending involved in putting lawyers up overnight in expensive hotels and other associated costs of conducting local disputes in the London courts.

“It's a question of underlying assumptions changing – people really do evaluate what's best now,” Wright says.

He says that it is inevitable that some big-money cases will go south, as will those where a big name is required.

But more and more quality work is staying up north. “There's even a backlash in London, they're finding a slight haemorrhaging of work out to the provinces,” he adds.

Agreeing with Davison, Wright predicts that, unlike in the South where specialisation is king, northern sets will continue to offer specialisations, but more of them under one roof.

Wright adds: “We think it's the future. In the olden days, there was a jack-of-all-trades philosophy.” He stresses that nowadays the picture is entirely different and the set will have practice areas for each distinct area but under the same umbrella.

However, Berkley warns that the rise and rise of the North West bar could be suppressed by the state of the local Chancery Courts, where a listing application made today would not get a hearing date until this time next year.

With the London Chancery Court currently enjoying a great period of popularity thanks to its speed and efficiency, those in the North West must feel they are at a disadvantage.

“If you want to promote high quality you need to invest more resources,” says Berkley.

While he describes the circuit's chancery deputies as the “unsung heroes of the situation”, he adds: “If the Lord Chancellor's Department really wants to promote these regional centres of excellence, there clearly needs to be investment in court resources as well.”

Despite such trials, London barristers are not seen as a threat.

But what of the threat posed by London chambers wishing to set up Manchester annexes to tap into northern commercial work? Berkley says: “Most Manchester solicitors would see right through that and know that it is merely an accommodation address and that London is being let in through the back door. But there's a very strong circuit tradition in the North West – it's a very close-knit legal community.”