UK Roundup: The bar

How critical does mass have to be?
In the world of solicitors, mergers happen regularly. Dissolutions are uncommon, but they still happen. In the bar, such events are distinctly rare, which explains the buzz around the breakup of commercial set 199 Strand.

The set announced it was to dissolve at the beginning of December, and since then its 36 full-time and four part-time and associate members, as well as staff, have been on the hunt for new homes. So far 9 Gough Square has picked up the bulk of the movers with five new tenants, while others have moved to 12 King’s Bench Walk, 11 New Square, Wilberforce Chambers and Crown Office Chambers.

Questions arise as to why 199 dissolved in such a dramatic fashion. Chambers director Martin Griffiths cited a lack of critical mass as the reason. However, with 40 tenants, 199 becomes the largest civil set to disappear for many years, and also one of the most high-profile. In the past decade, only the demise of aviation set 5 Bell Yard in 1998 and 2 Mitre Court Buildings in 2004 compare. Both sets disappeared after big-name silks departed for pastures new. 199 has not had that problem, partly because it only had three QCs – all solid practitioners, but none with the same clout that, for example, Robert Webb QC used to command at 5 Bell Yard before he moved in-house to British Airways.
199 members ought to have no difficulty finding new chambers. The set had a good reputation in its core practice areas of commercial, professional negligence and public law. Its disappearance will be the gain of many other chambers around the Inns of Court.

All agree that the bar is much more competitive now than ever before. If a set with no apparent outward difficulties can dissolve in so short a time, all bets are off for the future of smaller, lower-profile chambers across the Inns of Court.

The year of the negligence expert
In January 2005, the litigation year looked like being the year of the big guns. Jonathan Sumption QC, Lord Grabiner QC and Gordon Pollock QC all featured heavily in the cause lists.

A year on and 2006 seems set to be the year of the negligence expert. Step forward Four New Square’s Justin Fenwick QC and Sue Carr QC, who are both appearing in three of the biggest negligence cases to have hit the English courts for many a year. Having defended Collyer-Bristow and partner John Bailey against negligence claims in the massive Cable & Wireless case, the pair will shortly take up arms for the Football League in its £100m claim against Hammonds, starting in February. Both Fenwick and Carr are also acting on The Accident Group (TAG) litigation, which kicks off this year and which will decide the fate of hundreds of small personal injury solicitors’ firms.

The next 12 months should also see last year’s stars continue to build their practices. BCCI hero Nicholas Stadlen QC is still tied up negotiating costs for the Bank of England, but once that formality is dealt with he will be handling NatWest’s claim for breach of covenant against Rabobank. The case starts in October.

Meanwhile, Ernst & Young’s lead counsel duo of Brick Court Chambers’ Mark Hapgood QC and 7 King’s Bench Walk’s Jonathan Gaisman QC are also fairly busy. Hapgood is currently preparing for a Court of Appeal hearing over the Consumer Credit Act, while Gaisman is preparing for the July start of the £50m case brought by Australian-Japan Cable against Pender Insurance.

New stars could also be made this year. Keep an eye on 8 New Square’s Daniel Alexander QC as he appears on the IP aspects of the hotly awaited Apple Corps v Apple Computers in March. Alexander, one of The Lawyer’s Hot 100 for 2006, is earmarked as the successor to IP star David Kitchin QC, who was appointed to the bench last year. Fellow Hot 100 star John Kelsey-Fry QC of Hollis Whiteman Chambers will continue to build his burgeoning libel practice.

That does not mean the old guns are out of it. Sumption, Grabiner and other reputed practitioners such as Brick Court’s Sir Sydney Kentridge QC and 3 Stone Buildings’ Geoffrey Vos QC will all be in court during 2006. Diaries are still not reflecting the rumour that litigation is dead – good news for barristers everywhere.

A fresh set of QCs will also be appointed this year. The QC secretariat is still interviewing referees, and the word on the street is that the announcement of the first batch of silks to be selected under the revamped system will come at Easter. That will make it nearly a year since applications were invited; but it is worth making sure the right people are selected to ensure confidence in the new system. After that, it will be time for the young silks to start the difficult process of making the transition from senior-junior to fully fledged QC.

Regions prepare to take on the capital
Big-ticket litigation remains concentrated in London, but nevertheless the UK’s largest sets of barristers’ chambers are outside the capital. The three most significant – Birmingham’s St Philip’s, Exchange Chambers in Manchester and Liverpool, and Bristol-based No 5 Chambers – are all busy, despite an apparent reluctance on the part of solicitors to turn to regional sets.

St Philip’s is under new leadership this January after the departure of chief executive Paul Wilson to Olswang‘s Reading office. Wilson has been replaced by Collyer-Bristow’s chief executive Jonathan Fox, who was credited with greatly modernising the firm during his tenure there. Fox joins St Philip’s at a time when Birmingham lawyers, including chambers tenant Alastair Wyvill, are lobbying for more local judiciary. It will be interesting to see whether Fox can help influence the debate and raise the profile of the Midlands set in the process.

Meanwhile, further north, Exchange Chambers is on a hiring spree, having picked up three civil tenants and two criminal members during the past month on top of a year of laterals. All the new full tenants have come from other regional sets, showing an encouraging confidence in the market. Exchange now has 91 tenants and chambers director Tom Handley has plans to refocus the Manchester annex into general common law from its current commercial specialism. Broadening the scope of the set’s work is an astute move; but regional sets will have to continue to work on the quality of tenants in order to win work from the capital. The London bar is extremely good value for money and, in this era of BlackBerrys and videoconferencing, a barrister does not need to be in the same city as their client to carry out instructions.

Monthly column

Coming up:
Regional: 30 Jan
In-house: 6 Feb
Management: 13 Feb
The bar: 20 Feb