15 April 2002
For a block move, it was a secret remarkably well kept
until, that is, The Lawyer revealed on 1 April that planning and environmental specialist Eldon Chambers had lost no fewer than five barristers, all to the same set.
The market is still slightly stunned, not so much by the decision of the now famous five to quit the set, but because they chose to regroup at common and public law chambers 39 Essex Street. As one clerk put it: "39 are very good, but they don't know a thing about planning and environmental." Fair point, but the move has nevertheless put the traditional planning sets on the defensive.
Driven by Nigel Pleming QC and his management board, 39 Essex Street is utterly committed to setting up a serious planning and environmental group to compete with the rest of the bar. Together with existing members of the set, the Eldon team - comprising John Pugh-Smith, Richard Harwood, Martin Edwards, Stephen Tromans and Christian Zwart - will form a new 12-strong planning and environmental group. And for the record, this is by no means the end of the set's recruitment drive in this field.
The move has to be seen in the wider context of a series of fundamental changes both transforming the planning bar and creating instability among its members. On one level, there is a generational shift. At least seven leading silks have been elevated or have retired over the last 18 months, shaking up the pecking order. On another, planning is now pervaded by European and human rights law, as well as being affected by the general development of public law, so planning specialists need much broader skills. Here, there is something of a catch-22, because barristers armed with these skills can deal with a much wider range of matters beyond simply planning. For 39 Essex Street's five new tenants, this was an important consideration. At their new set, they will help set up the new planning and environmental group, but they also plan to feed off other areas of the set's public law practice and exploit synergies on the environmental side with its personal injury, insurance and general commercial capabilities.
Their move also comes as the planning bar grapples with the repercussions of a planning green paper, reaffirming the Government's desire to cut back the role of lawyers in the planning process. Add to this the competition - real or perceived - from leading regional sets 5 Fountain Court in Birmingham and 40 King Street in Manchester and you get some idea of the issues involved.
All of which has left those at the planning bar asking whether they can afford to stay narrowly focussed and often in relatively small sets.
London's planning elite - 4 Breams Buildings, Eldon, 2-3 Gray's Inn Square, 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, 2 Harcourt Buildings and 2 Mitre Court Buildings - have been facing two real options: evolve to give themselves a broader base to harness the new areas of work, or reconfigure.
Robin Purchas's set at 2 Harcourt, for example, puts itself firmly in the first camp with the arrival of environmental specialist Lord Kingsland QC from 4 Breams, and has plans to continue growing its local government work and general public law profile.
Eldon, on the other hand, seemed to be taking the second approach last year when it entered merger talks with 2 Mitre Court. The talks failed, but speculation is now rife that they will get a second wind. Eldon still has its biggest names intact, Bill Hicks QC and Patrick Clarkson QC being two of the best known. But to add to its latest blow, the set had only just invested in new premises (it was previously at No 1 Serjeant's Inn). With its numbers seriously down, Eldon faces an immense task in attracting quality tenants to fill the newly vacated seats or it will have to sub-let. The market is already asking whether the set can survive.
Eldon would now do well to bury whatever differences scuppered its past merger talks with 2 Mitre Court or find another partner. The rest of the planning elite will be watching to learn whatever lessons it can.