Disaffected with their barristers, north-east firms turned to London and forced the local Bar to take a hard look at itself.
While solicitors in the North East have rapidly honed their businesses in the past 10 years, barristers have lagged behind. Much as Yorkshire clients once sought out London firms, Leeds solicitors now go to the London Bar when they need advice.
Time and again the message from senior partners in the North was that they were not happy with the north eastern Bar. Many solicitors have a better understanding of legal topics that were once the preserve of barristers, and when they now need advice, it is of a specialist nature – and that means London. As Nabarro Nathanson's Sheffield managing partner Mike Renger explains it: "I don't think it is that the London Bar is of a higher intellectual
calibre than the regional Bar it is just that they specialise more."
But there are deeper problems. Mark Jones, Addleshaw Booth & Co senior partner, is particularly incensed by the poor service he received from a local chambers that left a client's papers in limbo. He took the work to a London chambers, where it was handled quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, he says he can often get a London barrister to travel to Leeds for the same price as hiring locally.
But barristers on the North East Circuit say they have got the message and are adapting their practices. "The Bar has undergone more change in the last few years than it has in the last 100," says Tim Collins, practice director at 6 Park Square in Leeds.
He adds: "The power has shifted a lot more now to the solicitors. The message we want to give is that we can add value to your business."
Park Square and recently relaunched Sovereign Chambers (previously 25 Park Square) have heeded the law firms' needs and are organising specialist teams instead of having Jacks and Jills of all legal trades.
Sovereign's head of chambers Geoffrey Marson QC says it is no longer acceptable to sit back and simply expect work to flow in. "It's up to us. We've got to promote ourselves and offer the service solicitors require."
He says change is sweeping the North East Circuit "rather more rapidly than the Bar is used to".
An example of this can be found in Newcastle, where Trinity Chambers has just appointed Simon Stewart as its practice director. A 26-year army veteran, Stewart arrives on the advice of consultants who said the chambers needed "a fresh pair of eyes" to promote its legal services. Stewart points out that now Newcastle has its own Mercantile Court, albeit under-used, there is a chance to develop work locally. Trinity is also looking to develop specialist practice areas. But Stewart warns: "We are not going to rush off and say: 'Sorry everyone, we don't do this anymore.'"
London-based Enterprise Chambers has already muscled into the North East, with its chambers in Leeds (set up 10 years ago) and Newcastle (established 18 months ago) offering London-type specialities in the North. "We operate as a single set of chambers so the highest standards are provided throughout," says Newcastle barrister Charles Morgan.
Morgan's colleague Ian Atherton says technology such as video conferencing lets him operate as easily in the North as from London while avoiding the daily grind of being trapped in traffic or on the tube. "You feel you're part of a world other than a world of lawyers," he says.
Other chambers are targeting different markets, with Westgate Chambers happy to admit much of its business comes from the Newcastle high street. "Big firms don't come to barristers to know what the law is because they're probably more clued up on it than we are – they do it every day," says barrister Philip Walling.
Like others in the North East, Westgate is trying to move away from the model of the broad-based set of chambers to create specialist groups within chambers. And it is perhaps more realistic about the problems of modern-day marketing of the Bar.
"You can write to the solicitors till you're blue in the face but if they don't want the work, they won't send it to you," says Walling. "When I began it was a sin against the Holy Spirit if you touted for work."
But, as Park Square's Collins points out, the north eastern Bar must undertake a cultural shift. "It's a process of change and part of it is being client focused, to actually talk to solicitors and see what they want."
Yet old attitudes die hard at the Bar. Says one northern barrister: "They expect you to be friends. For goodness' sake, we can't be friends with solicitors."
He was only half-joking.