Assembling the local bar

Are Cardiff clerks hindering the development of their barristers, who risk losing out to London sets? Bal Khela reports

Critics of the Cardiff bar say that it is failing to address new challenges presented by both the Mercantile Court and the Welsh National Assembly, leaving it in danger of losing out to London chambers.

Senior clerk at 33 Park Place Graham Barrett acknowledges the growing threat from London. “Previously the competition was within local chambers but now keeping work in Cardiff is becoming more important,” he says.

The Welsh National Assembly is determined to outsource its legal requirements locally. A practice direction issued in July by Lord Bingham, now the senior Law Lord, says that challenges to the Welsh Assembly can be heard only in Cardiff (The Lawyer, 5 July 1999). National Assembly counsel general Winston Roddick QC has expressed an interest in recruiting local counsel on the Wales and Chester circuit, and the results of the panel appointment process will be announced soon. But he issues a stark warning: “The local bar must be up to the job. Unless the local bar has the opportunity to develop into the more specialised fields of law it will never reach the mark.”

Senior clerk at 30 Park Place Huw Davies claims local chambers are well aware of the need to take decisive action on such matters. “We are doing our own thing but we are aware of many London chambers wanting to get their hands on our National Assembly work as they have been making overtures to our local solicitors, particularly in terms of our human rights work. So we set up a public law group,” he says.

9 Park Place has also started to place a greater emphasis on public law. Clerk Nigel East says: “We envisage a greater upturn in human rights work.”

But firms such as Eversheds, currently the sole external legal adviser to the National Assembly, are worried that they cannot rely on the local bar for commercial or specialist work. Eversheds partner Peter Watkin-Jones says: “The local bar is unable to cater for specific areas, such as construction and company law.” Watkin-Jones is critical of certain chambers that fail to recognise that continuing to give civil barristers criminal briefs will damage the Cardiff bar. There is a risk of creating a generation of all-round good rather than excellent specialist talent. “Some barristers have been unable to develop specialist practices,” he says.

Paul Hopkins, a partner at leading Welsh firm Edwards Geldard, claims his firm has attempted to promote the Mercantile Court under Judge Nicholas Chambers QC and believes that the local bar will be hindered unless it creates a specialist core. Hopkins says: “There are not enough commercial specialists in Cardiff so there is no point in going anywhere but London.” The lack of specialists is common to the regional bar but Cardiff must act quickly to ensure it is in a position to bid for an expected boom in quality local instructions, both from the National Assembly and the Welsh Development Agency. Hopkins says: “While I would like to give work locally, I have to be mindful of clients as I have had my fingers burned in the past.”

Such weaknesses are a matter of perception, according to partner Gareth Williams at Hugh James Ford Simey. “Comments that the local bar is not as good are rubbish and based on snobbery.” But when pressed, Williams admits his leading Welsh barristers, Wyn Lewis Williams QC and Vernon Pugh QC, both practise at specialist London chambers, namely 39 Essex Street and 2-3 Gray’s Inn Square respectively. But Williams remains adamant that London is not the panacea. “It is unfair to say that London is hogging the work as heavyweight personal injury and planning work goes to people like Williams and Pugh and both have strong local connections even though they are at London chambers.”

The benefits of giving work to counsel with strong local connections is clear. Barrett says: “Generally outside counsel appearing against our chambers lose because knowledge of the local judiciary can be a good thing.”

However, London continues to have the edge, using marketing and other ploys to win with. Barrett says: “London chambers have marketing shoots… there is also a certain amount of undercutting. We are becoming more aware of these sort of practices and we are making efforts to market ourselves as well because the chickens are coming home to roost.”

But the competition has helped the region smarten up its act and London could draw a few lessons from the innovative strategies being adopted by some. 30 Park Place targeted local law firms by offering them free assessments on 30 conditional fee agreement (CFA) cases and secured work on the basis of quality rather than cost.

“We did not want to go in for beauty parades, instead we identified the main solicitors to provide the bulk of CFA work in the valleys. We knew most of them as we are a tightknit community. They appreciated us coming to them and helping them and now we do a lot of conditional fee agreement work because we were organised from the outset,” says Davies.

But cost could still prove to be a deterrent. Hopkins says: “You can get London specialists at a better or similar rate to local counsel.” Davies disagrees: “It [the CFA scheme] showed solicitors that we were prepared to do the same and are not just fat cats, and that we too can adapt to a changing world.”

Amelioration and innovation may be the mantra of some Cardiff chambers but adapting to the changing environment of a business-led Mercantile Court and political entities such as the National Assembly and the Welsh Development Agency will be the real test.