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Norton Rose has almost halved its volume of bar referrals in the past two years and plans further reductions. It is also in the throes of being one of the first firms to bring solicitor-advocacy training in-house.
In January 2000, it was estimated that the firm spent £7m on external instructions to barristers in its latest financial year, while its predictions for this financial year total just £3.8m.
Norton Rose has 18 solicitor-advocates, four of whom are barristers, and a further five will be trained by January. It hopes that a further 64 fee-earners will take the course in the first six months of 2002.
Similar trends are emerging at firms across the City. Linklaters head of advocacy Mark Humphries said that his firm will have 65 fully-trained solicitor-advocates later this year, and has been reducing its spend on silks and the junior bar during the past few years. He said that the trend will mean that students will not have to struggle to decide between the bar and solicitors firms in the future because the crossover will be easier.
Rory McAlpine, the partner in charge of Denton Wilde Sapte's advocacy unit, said that there had been an "injection of enthusiasm" since regulations were eased 18 months ago. "There is a marked change in momentum," he said.
"We'll keep increasing [in size] until the demand is met. At the moment it almost seems to be outstripping supply," he said. But Matthew Saunders, a partner in DLA's litigation department, thinks that the bar can still offer a more cost-effective option for clients involved in longer cases.
He said: "Most solicitors have heavy caseloads and it is difficult for them to lock themselves away for a few months, which is what barristers do."