Raising the bar

Not at the bar: last week (23 February) The Lawyer hosted a lunch for 40 senior clerks and practice managers at the top chambers in the country, and it felt like
a party.

The modernisation of the commercial bar has gone unnoticed by many solicitors, who tend not to see sets as proper businesses. This may be a hangover from the 1990s, when the bar reacted with ­horror at the prospect of oikish solicitor-­advocates encroaching on their territory. That convulsion of competition did the bar good, and the change from 1990s dinosaurs to a profession eager to embrace the post-LSA world has been dramatic – take Outer Temple Chambers’ move to set up an entirely new vehicle for international work, ­as reported by The Lawyer last week (22 February). All the talk is of procurement vehicles and international expansion, from the US to Singapore. It sure ain’t Rumpole.

Law firms are so pressurised by clients on cost that they are occasionally ditching barristers ­without notice if they find another set willing to do it cheaper. The top-end commercial bar isn’t routinely subjected to fee pressure, but the strain has crept into the relationship. As we report today, One Essex Street and Herbert Smith had a major falling-out, which is now on the mend, but it is emblematic of the tensions between solicitors and barristers at the moment over fees.

It doesn’t help that chambers are now ­increasingly in direct competition with law firms.

I lost count of the number of clerks who said that they were being inundated with instructions for juniors; in-house counsel love them.

However, some sets will need to look at their QC-junior splits quite carefully, particularly in the wake of this year’s silk round. There are some sets that are becoming unsustainably top-heavy – and with ­precious little natural wastage of silks onto the bench they could start to look bloated at the top end.

Chambers have got it all going for them at the moment, but it won’t be long before they start ­worrying about ­gearing and globalisation too. ­Welcome to the world of modern legal ­management.