Specialise, or see your set die

The Western Circuit is bolstering its specialist expertise to stem the flow of commercial work which has traditionally been farmed out to the London chambers.

Although traditionally strong in crime, personal injury and family law, critics of the Western Circuit say that, on the commercial side, it has been much too slow to specialise.

“I don't use the local bar, I tend to go to London” is something you hear time and time again when you talk to the large commercial firms in the South West.

Simon Pizzey, managing partner at Bristol firm Veale Wasbrough and a commercial litigator, says: “We use Bristol counsel only if there is a specialist in the area.”

This is a message which many feel the local bar is now taking on board and taking steps to redress.

John Royce QC, leader of the Western Circuit, says chambers on the circuit have improved quite markedly in quality in the past five years and are now more willing to look at the needs of solicitors and their clients.

“Almost every set of chambers now specialises to a greater or lesser extent. Either they are attracting people from London, or growing their own specialist members,” he says.

“In insolvency and employment, solicitors are serviced by a number of extremely good local barristers across the circuit, which enables solicitors to go locally rather than to London.”

Bristol, says Royce, does not have a monopoly on expertise. “There is good insolvency work being done in Southampton, Winchester and all around the circuit.”

But it is in Bristol, which has chancery jurisdiction and, since 1994, a mercantile court, that perhaps the pressure to specialise has been strongest.

Richard Hyde, senior clerk at St John's Chambers in Bristol, says his set, which has grown from 17 barristers in 1988 to 47 in 1998, has tended to develop into specialist departments.

“The mercantile court has handled many of the mis-selling of pension cases and a number of clearing banks are now setting down actions, and defending them, in Bristol Mercantile Court,” he says.

“As a result, the Bristol bar is gradually getting its own group of experts, although you do still get barristers coming in from London.”

Jim Shapton, chambers director at Guildhall Chambers in Bristol, says: “The traditional areas of provincial practice – crime, family, personal injury – are strong here. Our planning recognises, however, that the demands of solicitors in the region in other fields of work are for a level of specialism that has not always been on offer, with the result that much quality work goes out of the region, primarily to London.”

Shapton says the set has responded to this problem in fields such as insolvency and banking and professional negligence. “We are confident that solicitors in the region will support the development of a greater range of locally available silks, reducing the need to resort to London sets,” he says.

David Barber is senior clerk at Pump Court Chambers, which has sets in London, Swindon and Winchester. “The old ethos where you could say 'I am a barrister and do a bit of everything' is gone,” he says.

Individuals in the chambers who want to specialise have to show a willingness to promote themselves within the area of law, he says. They are encouraged to take a masters degree, or to attend seminars on their specialist subjects.

“We try to offer a specialist service so local solicitors and people don't have to go to London and pay London prices.”

The local bar has grown significantly in the past couple of years, he says. His Winchester set has grown from five people 10 years ago to 22, with matrimonial law a definite growth area in the last few years.

Across the region, the effort to specialise seems to be reaping dividends.

Lynda Knight, senior clerk at Southampton chambers Eighteen Carlton Crescent, says all three Southampton sets are growing, and busy with family and criminal work, as well as with insolvency and employment work.