When partnerships are the answer

Replying to Jonathan Hirst, Andrew Arden says he is not proposing partnerships as a universal cure-all, but they would certainly benefit smaller sets. Andrew Arden QC is head of Arden Chambers.

Jonathan Hirst is quite right when he asserts that I “must be practising in a very different world” from him (The Lawyer, 13 December).

He is a commercial silk at Brick Court Chambers and vice-chairman of the Bar Council, while I and my chambers are housing and local government practitioners, almost exclusively dependent on the very public funds which have given notice that they will no longer pay to support the profession in the style to which it has become accustomed.

Change is being forced on us: it is not something I have chosen; nor is it something he can prevent.

I have no doubt that there is much merit in several of his arguments. Above all, it is the argument of – and for – the big sets (London or provincial), which ignores the needs of mid-size/income sets such as mine.

This thrust is strongly evidenced by his proposition that partnership could lead to “the perverse result… that chambers would have to become smaller”.

Public access to the “barrister of choice” is not enhanced but severely diminished when the bar’s own professional body insists on rules that serve only its more powerful members and drive others out of the market (in what might be described as “the normal response” of the larger institutions to adverse market change).

If nothing else, Jonathan Hirst’s populist attempt to drive a wedge between junior and senior members should put members of the bar on notice: the Bar Council has a well-deserved reputation as defender of the status quo and, above all, of the bar’s wealthiest practitioners and its most powerful sets.

Not only are conditions no longer the same as two decades ago when the Royal Commission reported, they were not even imaginable at that time.

To the extent that there has been any mileage left in the access issue, the extension of full rights of audience under the Access to Justice Act 1999 amendment to the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 is a complete answer to it: we are, by parliamentary fiat, no longer a profession “special” enough to enjoy exclusive privileges but must compete with others on a level playing field.

Once that public interest in access has gone, it is no longer a question of professional self-regulation but one of freedom for all members of the profession to organise economically in a way that is commensurate with the new conditions.

That is something for which the Bar Council must take responsibility, instead of continuing to seek to reserve a seat on the train while watching through the window as it pulls out of the station.

Even without the amendment, I was not in any event misstating this justification for the prohibition on partnership: it is the other side of the cab rank coin and just as illusory – ask someone just over legal aid limits whether he can afford a top silk.

I did not propose partnerships as a universal panacea but as one that may be right for some sets in some circumstances.

If other chambers need their current arrangements, and they merit paying for, they will survive.

To translate this into an absolute prohibition on partnership is to admit that it may well prove even more attractive – both to barristers and to their clients – than I have argued.

The bar will not survive because we are thought to offer the same thing as solicitors organised in a different way, but because we are seen to offer something (specialist advisory and advocacy services) that is different, yet equally relevant to today’s market.