The in-house advocacy set-to

So Hill Dickinson is the latest firm to launch an in-house chambers with the hire of barrister Sarah Venn from North West rival Halliwells. The timing is impeccable, coming just a month after new Bar Council chair Timothy Dutton QC slammed in-house advocacy units in his inaugural address.

“The comparative attraction of ‘advocacy’ to some firms of solicitors, as a service that they themselves might offer, may be causing them not to instruct barristers until errors have been made by inadequate in-house handling of work,” said Dutton.

The attack raised more than a few eyebrows in the litigation community. Keeping standards high is a perennial issue for Bar Council chairs.

But to suggest that it’s not for law firms is, frankly, fairly insulting to the likes of Eversheds and Herbert Smith, which have chosen to go down the in-house route. When you consider the tiny number of barristers working at these firms, it almost amounted to a personal attack. Venn herself seems perplexed, saying: “I can only assume his opinion is not founded upon recent experience.”

And for those sitting outside the profession, the attractions of in-house advocacy teams seem like a no-brainer. Such are the efficiencies to be gained from avoiding the unnecessary admin involved in going out of house that the attractions for clients are clear.

But to argue for the death of the independent referral model would be foolish. While the commercial arguments for in-house teams are compelling, the practicalities of actually recruiting any barristers to work in law firms makes it impossible.

Eversheds in-house barrister Tom Keith has had such difficulties recruiting that he has taken a barrister on secondment. Which rather seems to be defeating the point of the exercise.

Put simply, you can earn considerably more cash as an independent barrister. And to a certain extent you get to pick and choose the work you do.

In many ways the high water mark of in-house advocacy was the 1990s, when firms such as Herbert Smith and Clifford Chance invested considerable resources in building teams of solicitor-advocates. Herbert Smith has persisted with its own chambers, but the very fact that this trend has not caught on should make Dutton sleep a little easier at night.