the Leader column

Investigating what goes on in the House of Lords has proved what a difficult task measuring the performance of lawyers is – particularly that of barristers. It illustrates the importance of methodology and it must be stressed that The Lawyer’s report is a study of performance in the highest court in the land, not of profitability.

Not many cases will reach the Lords, and those that do can rarely be determined from the outset. It is certainly not decided on the basis of who has the biggest and best clients. Just look at the roll call of solicitors – from Surbiton to Preston there are numerous high-street firms winning their 15 minutes of fame in matters relating to health and education. Such cases must be heard because of their vital and obvious public interest, but they will not affect the judgments of the commercial litigation departments of Freshfields, Clifford Chance et al when they come knocking at counsel’s door.

So, while One Essex Court does not win top billing, it is unlikely it would ever expect to. It does not claim to have public law capability, which is a key ingredient to success in the Lords. The relative commercial clout of the magic circle chambers will become much clearer when The Lawyer turns its attention to the Court of Appeal – far more the battleground of the commercial bar’s elite. (Look out for this feature in the coming weeks.)

What the investigation has revealed is that despite the bar’s traditional resistance to change and the difficulties large sections have had in managing and implementing its modernisation, the English bar still comprises some of the best lawyers in the world. Cloisters’ remarkable showing in the House of Lords table exemplifies this. The set has received much negative press for the way it has handled its massive (and acrimonious) programme of internal restructuring, which resulted in the civil practice demerging from its criminal colleagues. However, as a chambers it finishes in fourth place overall and is the first-placed non-magic circle set. While it remains to be seen whether the new streamlined Cloisters will be a success, if it is now left to get on with what it does best – lawyering – Cherie and co will have to put up or shut up. Either that, or they will be forced to find an answer to the signature phrase from the film bearing her new set’s name: “What is the Matrix?”