Time called on loyalty at bar as lit boom sets in
24 January 2011 | By Katy Dowell
Switching chambers was once frowned upon at the bar, but with sets evolving into commercial beasts, movement is reaching unprecedented levels.
As barristers take advantage of the litigation boom most of the movement is taking place at mid-tier London sets and regional chambers, which have worked hard to build their brands and are capable of competing in a reduced legal market.
At the top end of the hierarchy, where sets have invested significantly in modernising administration functions, barrister movement is also on the rise, although the traditional route of moving from pupillage to membership is still very much intact.
“There certainly seems to be a lot of shifting around,” says One Essex Court senior clerk Darren Burrows. ”People are looking at where they are and what work they’re doing. If you’re in a set and you’re not doing well, you should be moving to somewhere where you can do better.”
Another leading practice manager adds: “This is the busiest period we’ve had in years - everyone’s hard at it. If you’re not working there’s something wrong.”
In the past decade chambers have built themselves as branded businesses. Stronger competition from rival sets, solicitors and US firms has forced them to assess how work can be done in a more efficient manner.
The knock-on effect has been that both barristers and clerks have become more commercially aware.
Lincoln’s Inn set Hardwicke is indicative of this trend. The chambers has seen 10 barrister departures since the beginning of 2009, along with the exits of senior clerks Danny O’Brien and Kevin Mitchell in May that year. On paper at least, it appears to be the biggest loser of the past two years.
However, it has brought in seven new members, including Lesley Anderson QC, who holds joint tenancy with Manchester set Kings Chambers, and Mohammed Zaman QC, who has joint tenancy with Birmingham set St Philips.
Hardwicke has been on a mission to reinvent itself since it appointed Amanda Illing as practice director in May 2009. Illing joined from Matrix Chambers, where she was an instrumental force. At the time of her departure at the 2008-09 year-end the set was only nine years old and posting a turnover of £13.63m, up from £13.4m the year before.
Hardwicke appointed Illing with the specific remit of building the set’s turnover to help it break into The Lawyer’s list of top 20 sets by 2014. In the past financial year it would have had to overtake Manchester’s Exchange Chambers, which posted a turnover of £21.7m, to achieve this. As things stood Hardwicke’s turnover was £15.8m for 2009-10.
“When it was set up Hardwicke was a small Lincoln’s Inn set, moving into civil, criminal, property, personal injury and education work,” says one rival senior clerk. “They were rowing in so many directions, nobody knew what was happening.”
Until 2004 Hardwicke was the among the largest sets in London, despite the fact that in June 2002 property silk Romie Tager QC left with six colleagues and a civil clerking team to establish Selborne Chambers.
Two years later Hardwicke demerged its civil and criminal practices, with then co-head of chambers Patrick Upward QC taking the 48-strong criminal group to establish 15 New Bridge Street.
igel Jones QC took the reins as head of the civil set - he remains head of chambers today - and Hardwicke went about adopting a commercial mindset.
Given such an unsettled history, it is unsurprising that the set has lost so many members to rivals.
The turmoil was further compounded when it restructured to adopt a practice group matrix made up of four key divisions comprising commercial, public, private client and insurance and property.
Moving the set into a new era was never going to be easy, but Hardwicke chief executive Ann Buxton believes the investment it has made in administrative functions has helped it overhaul its image and continue to attract new members.
“There’s a real wish among the barristers to join well-run businesses,” she says. “We have a clear strategy to have properly trained staff. There’s a certain dissatisfaction with sets that have old-fashioned habits and that don’t understand that we’re in a competitive age.
“The pressures are more acute, branding’s very important. Sets need to be clear about what they stand for and get it across to the market.”
With the chambers’ financials rising year-on-year and its ability to continue to attract members, Hardwicke has made some headway in boosting its profile within the profession. Despite this, one clerk questions whether Hardwicke has achieved its self-stated aims.
Tempting litigators to break long-term loyalties to well-established sets and take a punt on Hardwicke will require some strong encouragement and a well-established caseload. Hardwicke is moving in the right direction, but there is still a way to go, says the clerk.
Compare this with Blackstone Chambers, which has come into its own in recent years, attracting three new members since January 2009 (a further two took membership in 2008) and registering an impressive 27 mentions in The Lawyer’s top 20 cases of 2011.
Blackstone senior clerk Gary Oliver says the set recruits strategically and will only take on members who fit the “Blackstone way”.
Last summer human rights silk Tim Otty QC joined from Doughty Street Chambers (The Lawyer, 2 August 2010). This came just six months after he quit 20 Essex Street. The motivation, Otty told The Lawyer at the time, was a desire to be in a set better suited to his practice.
“My practice spans public and human rights law, public international law and commercial law, and Blackstone has strength in each of these areas,” said Otty.
Along with this notable switch, the biggest shock at the bar in the past 30 years was also Blackstone-related, with the controversy award going to Michael Beloff QC.
Beloff was a Blackstone member in the 1980s when it was 2 Hare Court, but he upset the status quo by joining 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square in 1985.
“It was big news,” one clerk recalls. “It was a shock for anyone to move, let alone someone like Beloff. Changes in those days just didn’t happen - you stayed loyal or there was a threat of losing your practice.
“When someone moves chambers today, it can hardly be seen as controversial.”
No stranger to controversy, Beloff became head of chambers at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square in 1992 and held the post until 2000. At the same time he was President of Trinity College, Oxford.
He was heavily touted to become part of the senior group of QCs destined to launch Matrix. However, Blackstone tempted him back, and he is known to be the only barrister to have left and then rejoined the set.
Oliver says the set has seen a rise in the number of applications, but there must be a business need to accommodate any new members.
“In considering these applications there are many factors we need to carefully consider based on expertise and reputation, our business need and being able to service client needs while not compromising the high standards we expect,” he says. “There are several reasons why a member of the bar would wish to move chambers.
“At the end of the day, our success is down to making relationships work and is certainly not driven by numbers.”
One hire that Blackstone would like to have made is that of former Ofgem general counsel Duncan Sinclair, who was a regular referrer to Blackstone and a keen advocate of direct access to the bar for the energy watchdog.
However, with the set’s regulation practice fully serviced, Sinclair instead went to 39 Essex Street when he left his in-house position last year.
39 Essex Street is certainly working its way up the new-joiner rankings, adding six new members since January 2009 and losing just one in Richard Clayton QC, who joined 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square in August 2009.
“Historically barristers just didn’t move, it was the same as the solicitors,” comments 39 Nine Essex Street senior clerk David Barnes. “Now it’s more fluid; people are looking to the future and sets have to adapt to the new profession.”
Outer Temple Chambers also seems to have a revolving door, with seven members departing and seven new ones arriving since January 2009.
It is yet another set that has invested in its administrative functions and looked to diversify in the wake of increased competition. Last year it launched the first international procureco, Outer Temple International, aimed at attracting instructions from Manhattan.
For a London-centric profession, a chambers in the capital is obviously a draw for barristers who want to be involved in the larger, higher-profile and more profitable cases.
The regional sets are having to cope with this along with a drop in legal spend by in-house counsel and the demise of legal aid.
But this has not stopped Kings Chambers from boosting its ranks, making it one of the most acquisitive sets in the civil bar, with 11 new members since January 2009.
During the same period the set has lost just two members: Katherine Dunn retired at the end of 2009, then head of chambers Frances Patterson QC left after being appointed a commissioner at the Public Law Commission.
Moving up the barrister ranks has never been an easy business, but rather than waiting for a break within the chambers where they completed pupillage, barristers’ loyalties to their sets are beginning to fragment.
This is putting an increased pressure on clerks, practice directors, chief executives and heads of chambers to keep their barristers happy. And the best way to do that is to make sure they are riding the litigation tsunami comfortably.