The regional bar has come through the recession in good form and larger sets should no longer be seen as London’s poor relations, argues Bill Braithwaite QC
Just how successful can a barristers’ chambers become without having a presence in London? An analysis of The Lawyer’s bar top 30, which ranks the leading chambers in the country by turnover, suggests that London remains the centre of the bar’s universe. Only two chambers outside the capital make it into the top 30 and there is not one regional chambers in the top 10.
However, headline turnover statistics can be misleading in terms of quality and market standing. While the cuts to publicly funded work continue to bite – and indeed threaten the existence of the criminal bar as we know it – the privately funded regional bar is in good health and has withstood the recession well.
This has certainly been the case for multidisciplinary chambers, which have seen a rise in litigation and insolvency-related instructions.
Chambers outside London with a business-minded approach – realising that in the current climate size does matter – are also beginning to spread their wings. Sets are expanding by both merger and organic growth to achieve a wider geographical spread and realise the economies of scale.
The advantages and disadvantages of mergers and organic growth are well-documented. A merger creates immediate critical mass and market share, while organic growth allows a set to expand without affecting its culture or compromising the quality of its offering. Our own preference has been for organic growth in the three major cities in which we are now based.
Speaking recently about the future, chairman of the bar, Brick Court Chambers’ Nicholas Green QC, outlined the challenges we must all overcome in a period when “clients want more work for less money but delivered at the same or higher quality”.
To compete and prosper chambers in the regions must play to their strengths and continue to innovate. We must focus on key regional legal centres, expand our service offering and forge ever-stronger links with local solicitors.
The London bar is, of course, immensely strong and always will be, but it has become an overcrowded space. Many of the country’s leading silks and juniors are developing their practices from regional sets, where strength in depth is similarly demonstrated.
Our message to solicitors operating out of the regions is that there is simply no need for them to go to London when the regional bar is so strong and already offers an outstanding service. Encouragingly, this message is striking a chord, but there is much work still to be done.
Regional chambers have the advantage of being competitive in terms of fees. Property costs and general overheads are lower, which means high-quality service can be delivered at a relatively low cost.
It would, however, be a mistake to compete solely on the basis of lower fees in an attempt to win work. Larger regional chambers are no longer the poor relations of London sets in terms of infrastructure and resources. They all employ practice managers and support staff, invest in new IT and provide value-added services, including extensive in-house training for solicitors.
There are also recruitment advantages to being based outside the capital. Members’ contributions from barristers are well below London rates, while new pupils are attracted not only by the enhanced work-life balance on offer, but also the promise of working on quality cases close to home.
Set for change
Perhaps the greatest asset the regional bar now has is the widespread acceptance that it must evolve and change. We can no longer wait to see what big London sets are doing and follow suit.
We need to pursue strategic objectives to deliver the best advocacy to our clients, while internal communication remains equally important. Barristers may be self-employed, but they are also part of a wider business and will only derive the maximum benefits from that by working as a team.
The challenges we face, then, are considerable, but there are exciting opportunities too. We need to be progressive, forward-thinking and embrace new business structures. We need to get both bigger and better.
There may be much to do, but the regional bar is well-placed to deliver.
Bill Braithwaite QC is head of Exchange Chambers, which has offices in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester