Breaking down the barriers

Leo Schulz reports on the regional practitioners whose expert work is demonstrating that London is not necessarily the best. It is acknowledged that the regional employment Bar can be seen as suffering from a credibility problem. Few solicitors really believe that barristers outside London do more than “dabble” in employment litigation. For a variety of reasons, expertise is concentrated in London, and even in the capital it is dominated by a handful of leading chambers.

“I always go to London,” says one west country solicitor when asked about employment barristers she would use or recommend outside the capital. “I am sure they are out there somewhere, but I do not know them, I never come across them.”

The point about not being fully-fledged specialists is particularly important, given that the solicitors are specialists themselves.

But one of the reasons solicitors are able to wield such influence in employment law is that hearings are typically before tribunals, chaired and run by solicitors, rather than in the high courts, where the judge in effect is a barrister.

“We do not use barristers for advocacy,” comments one solicitor in the Midlands. “We do all that ourselves. Our clients prefer it, because we know them and we know the case and there is little, if any, value for a barrister to add.”

“In tribunals there is no prejudice at all, not even a residue, against solicitor-advocates,” says another respondent. “If anything, it is the other way around. Litigants-in-person are treated with sympathy, solicitors are seen as neutral and there is an element of suspicion about having a barrister.”

The net effect is that barristers trying to forge a reputation in employment law are likely only ever to be asked to do half the job – to help unravel the legal basis of a case but not to plead it.

“Yes, that is true,” agrees a Birmingham solicitor. “We only go to barristers for opinions on points of law. And then, because it is a contained and particular piece of work, you tend to pay more and go to the best, where you feel you can be sure of your ground.”

Against specialisation and the specific mechanics of employment hearings, there is also the element of competition. Across the country, solicitors complain that the difference in fees between local Bars and London is negligible or non-existent. “For the difference of a few hundred pounds you can have a specialist from one of the top London chambers, as opposed to someone local who only does employment now and then,” explains a solicitor in the east Midlands. “There is not that much choice.”

“To get a seat in a leading London chamber you need an Oxbridge first or possibly even a double first. You are paying for someone of real intellectual power who can add some value for the client,” said another respondent.

John Hand QC of 9 St John Street chambers in Manchester and Old Square Chambers in London remains the leading regional employment barrister. Also mentioned at 9 St John Street were juniors Paul Gilroy and Nigel Grundy.

Robert Thomas at Guildhall Chambers in Bristol is described as “very good with clients, a sharp brain”.

Also in Bristol, at the annexe of Old Square Chambers, Barry Cotter continues to win praise from local solicitors, as does Toby Kempster.

Richard Seabrook at Ropewalk Chambers in Nottingham is “very good, very impressive, we like him”.

Also recommended are Jane Woodwark and Paul Cape, both at New Court Chambers in Newcastle.

Kevin O'Donovan at 5 Fountain Court in Birmingham is described as “tough but fair”, while at the same set Jennifer Jones is said to be “highly spoken of” and “good, commercial, knows her stuff, gets on with clients, close to the quality you would expect at 11 King's Bench Walk”.

Others mentioned at 5 Fountain Court include Tim Newman and Neil Thompson.

Recommended at 7 Fountain Court are Sarah George and David Lock, who one solicitor says is “really the only person that I rate”.

In Leeds, Jeffrey Lewis at 9 Woodhouse Square is said to have “the right approach”.