Rum tales from the Brum bar
4 May 1999
2 December 2013
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5 December 2013
The Midlands bar is in fighting mood with aggressive recruitment, creative marketing, merger fever and a little bit of back-stabbing all an accepted part of the local scene. Its ambition is to raise the region's profile, and take local business out of the hands of London competitors. On paper at least, there are signs that it might just be working.
Three of the top six chambers in the country, by size, are now based in the Midlands. St Philip's, the product of last year's merger between Priory Chambers and 7 Fountain Court, is now the biggest. No 5 Fountain Court is second place and 36 Bedford Row, which won the Chambers of the Year Award in last year's Lawyer Awards, is at number six.
But although size matters, it is not a kitemark for quality, and even the leading sets in the region have been described as short on quality and heavy on price.
"Our first choice is usually London because of the cost, strength and depth," says Jonathan Fortnam, a partner in the litigation department at Pinsent Curtis' Birmingham office. "There are some very good players, but if they are not available there is no-one to back them up," he says.
"The Birmingham bar is no cheaper than the London bar, and some London sets do provide a better response," says Digby Rose, head of litigation at edge ellison.
The indications are that local chambers are starting to heed this criticism and tailor their costs to the budgets of their clients. Vincent Denham, chief executive of St Philip's Chambers, accepts there is a perception of high fees, and says Birmingham sets are having to address the issue.
"We'll do anything we need to do to maintain a competitive position. We did a price comparison with a partner at Pinsent Curtis, on a case by case basis, compared to London barristers, and there was no difference," he says.
Competition is intense, and there are plenty of stories circulating of a price war being fought against London sets. One senior clerk explains: "The Birmingham bar operates a civil cartel. No matter what set you go to, you always get quoted the same price."
Denham is adamant that price fixing does not go on. "I have never had a conversation with another set about fees," he says.
Local barristers are also working hard to convince local firms that they can handle commercial work - traditionally one of the local bar's weaker areas. According to Tony McDaid, practice director at 5 Fountain Court, one problem is that Birmingham solicitors are trying to win big business over by offering access to London counsel. "We have to convince the local business community that there is commercial and chancery expertise to be had on the doorstep," he says. "For example, for construction, Neil F Jones & Co, a local firm, sends 90 per cent of its work to London sets. That is very frustrating. I've got a good deal of quality. They use us, but not enough," says McDaid.
This is not to say that the Brummies are lacking confidence. Craig Jeavons, senior clerk at St Ives Chambers, says: "Birmingham has got it sewn up. We have a top family silk in Julie Macur QC and the biggest planning people in the country: Harry Wolton QC, Martin Kingston QC and Jeremy Cahill."
Five Birmingham barristers also feature in this year's silks list: Ralph Lewis of 5 Fountain Court; James Corbett at St Philip's; Jeremy Cousins and Patrick Thomas at 4 Fountain Court; and Robert Juckes next door at 3 Fountain Court.
And the region has developed a solid, if not unparalleled, reputation in crime, personal injury, family and planning law. But a philosophical McDaid warns there is no room for complacency - despite a turnover of £11.6m last year: "We're going in the right direction but we haven't got all the answers yet and we're a million miles from the end product."