Merge or submerge?

Nicholas Orr says that although the northern chancery circuits are strong, chambers are finding themselves confronted by the question of whether or not to merge. Nicholas Orr is a barrister at 14 Castle Street in Liverpool.

Where it was once thought unlikely that the North would support a silk's practice, there are now five (although some of them would now describe themselves as commercial). This is a reflection of the volume and value of the work undertaken on the circuits.

Commerce, of course, provides a large part of the workload of the Chancery Bar on circuit, much of it emanating from the larger firms of solicitors in the area. The circuits themselves cover an enormous area and are adjacent to other areas without a local specialist bar, such as North Wales.

Some chancery barristers are more specialised than others but for many a day's work can range from an agricultural tenancy in North Wales to a disputed will in Cumbria, as well as involving a mix of advising, drafting and litigation.

To say the least it offers more variety than, say, a practice in crime or personal injuries.

The availability of a specialist Bar is essential to the ability of many firms of solicitors to provide a wide range of services to their clients. That results in chambers having a very large client base.

20 North John Street, which was nine-strong, had in excess of 500 client firms before merging with 14 Castle Street in Liverpool, which had 26 tenants.

In the North, the majority of chancery practitioners used to be in specialised sets. However, the current trend, with notable exceptions in Manchester and Leeds, has been towards the creation of larger mixed sets. That has particularly been the case in Liverpool where there are no longer any specialised chambers.

The Bar Council's advice has been that the optimum size for chambers should be 25 tenants, far larger than would be realistic for a specialist set on circuit.

In fact specialist sets are for the most part much smaller than that. Take for example the size of specialist chambers in Lincoln's Inn.

No doubt a large part of the reason for smaller sets is the desire of anyone with a paperwork practice to have a room of his own to work in undisturbed.

A common argument in favour of merger to form a large mixed set is that it affords solicitors and clients the opportunity of obtaining all their advice under one roof.

While that is correct to the extent that it means that chambers can advertise themselves as offering a full range of expertise, it assumes that solicitors do not give much thought to the selection of their counsel.

My experience is that, particularly where specialised work is concerned, solicitors are careful in their selection of counsel and do not simply assume that just because a set provides for their common law needs that it can do the same in other disciplines.

While a large mixed set is in a better position to advertise as it enjoys a bigger budget, a specialised set with an address of its own has a prominence that its members would lack when absorbed by a larger set.

Sending out brochures advertising a mixed set assumes that solicitors will read them to the extent of finding out who does what work in the chambers.

The arguments for and against merger lie between the economies of scale available to larger sets and the prominence which an independent specialised set may command.

But, the quality of accommodation and facilities which are now expected of the Bar are now beyond the easy reach of small sets and gaining them can be the main advantage of merging with a larger set.

Time will tell whether the loss of an independent identity will offset that gain.

Where chambers have expanded to become mixed, they appear for the most part to be run so as to provide a separate identity for the specialist members.

The retention of some form of separate identity within the chambers is necessary if one is not to lose the reputation of being specialised.

Still, the perception of the Chancery Bar in the North on the part of solicitors and clients is that it is positive.

The survey undertaken by the Northern Circuit some years ago revealed no significant criticism, and the increasing quantities of work being undertaken suggest either that we are doing the job right or that the public's enthusiasm for legal dispute is still growing hopefully both.