Under Pressure

Most would forgive the bar if it simply decided to curl up and hibernate this Christmas. After all, it was a year of enormous upheaval for the profession with unprecedented legal reforms, massive downward pressure on fees and a whole barrage of new tests, standards, initiatives and procedures with which to comply.

But particularly in the second half of the year, the bar witnessed scenes of frenetic activity, as it finally revolted against the torrent of abuse it faced both from the Lord Chancellor's Department and from its colleagues on the solicitors' side of the profession.

The bar has rapidly been attempting to bring itself up to date and develop a corporate identity and business culture, with some degree of success.

Most notably, there has been a flurry of chamber mergers. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the regions which first took the initiative. In Liverpool in May, Martin's Building and The Corn Exchange merged, creating 65-tenant set 7 Harrington Street. The merger put three of the top five chambers by size outside London.

In August, Welsh sets 32 Park Place and Newport Chambers announced their intention to merge, creating a 40-tenant set. Many more entered talks but failed, for now at least, to find a suitable partner.

The inexorable drive for growth gathered pace, with national chambers 36 Bedford Row bolting on tenants in Nottingham to establish an annexe there. This occured after a failed attempt at merger with two regional sets, King Charles House and St Mary's Chambers.

But it was not until the end of November that the extent to which chambers were consolidating truly became apparent.

The news that 2 Crown Office Row and 1 Paper Buildings (The Lawyer, 22 November) were to merge, spawning a 73-tenant, 15-silk mega-set, was quickly followed by the revelation that One Hare Court and Serle Court were also linking up (13 December). These marriages demonstrated just how far merger-mania was spreading.

Michael Spencer QC, head of chambers at 1 Paper Buildings, said: "This is being driven by a desire to provide clients with the service they are demanding. That requires the bar changing and we want to be at the forefront of that."

Of course, not everyone agreed that merger was the way forward. This was proven by the massive increase in the past year of selective poaching.

The most notable examples were Steven Gee QC, who left magic circle set One Essex Court to become head of chambers at 4 Field Court, and Richard Gordon QC, who swopped 39 Essex Street for Brick Court Chambers.

Further examples were "million pound a year club" member David Oliver QC, who left the safety of 13 Old Square where he and his father had spent their entire careers, for premier company set Erskine Chambers, and Nicholas Davidson QC who ditched 4 Paper Buildings for the new Four New Square.

The catalyst for expansion was the raft of reform that swept through the bar in the first six months of the year. These included the Woolf and legal aid reforms, BarMark, the extension of rights of audience, block contracting and franchising and the increasing demands from clients – both in-house legal departments and solicitors.

The extended use of conditional fee agreements (CFAs) was another reason why chambers need to consolidate in order to contain their risk exposure.

But many chambers remain unconvinced about CFAs, and in commercial cases they are almost never used.

Number 1 Serjeant's Inn, a set held by the Lord Chancellor as a pioneer of CFA's in personal injury actions, made substantive claims that the system is flawed.

The set, which by March this year had already taken on over 100 cases on a CFA basis, said that its experience highlighted two major potential conflicts of interest that could seriously impair a barrister's conduct in a case operating under a CFA.

Even the commercial bar has not been insulated from the various pressures experienced by the bar as a whole and has also suffered from a drop in work levels.

The Lawyer revealed on 24 May that a the number of claims issued in the Commercial and Admiralty Court had dropped by 44 per cent over the last two years.

The change represents the shifting nature of litigation, with fewer cases reaching trial.

Leading commercial set Littleton Chambers was one of the first to realise the potential of alternative forms of resolving disputes and formed a mediation services business.

Littleton Dispute Resolution Services, trading as Littleton Mediation, was set up in April just as the Woolf reforms were introduced.

Changes to employment legislation also gave cause for concern at the bar.

Rebecca Edmonds, a pupil barrister at 23 Essex Street, took her chambers to court in August to establish whether the national minimum wage applied to trainee barristers during their pupillage.

Head of chambers Michael Lawson QC said at the time: "There are severe implications whichever way. This is such an important issue that I'm quite prepared to be sued over it."

Mr Justice Sullivan delivered a prompt verdict in September that the minimum wage does apply to certain pupil barristers.

Meanwhile, employment practices in another set became the subject of much criticism from a former employee.

Michael Martin, former senior clerk at Cloisters who has since established his own set Cardinal Chambers, condemned his former set for the manner in which he was ousted.

His criticism was made more poignant by the fact that Cloisters is one of the leading sets practising in employment law.

Clerks came under pressure this year and many switched chambers, often to be replaced by chambers directors and chief executives, as sets looked to develop a new corporate culture.

Many of the newly-created posts were filled with solicitors rather than barristers. 39 Essex Street appointed Rowe & Maw's partnership secretary Michael Meeson, 7 King's Bench Walk recruited Linklaters' former director of finance Robin Landon and Monckton Chambers poached Watson Farley & Williams' director of operations Alexandrina le Clezio.

Other sets which appointed chambers directors included 23 Essex Street, 2 Temple Gardens, 1 Crown Office Row and 8 King Street in Manchester.

The move to modernise the bar has been embraced by this year's Bar Council chairman Dan Brennan QC, through a number of initiatives, most importantly BarDirect and BarMark.

BarMark is intended to provide a quality assurance standard for the service provided by chambers.

But many criticised it for being simply a burdensome administrative test.

Nevertheless, it seems that all common law chambers will need to gain the standard if they are to be eligible for block contracting and franchising.

BarDirect is a scheme allowing clients direct access to counsel without going through a solicitor. Again, this intitiative faced much criticism as many sets already receive some instructions direct from in-house counsel. But it was applauded for encouraging the bar to seek out new sources of work.

Inevitably, the Woolf reforms, legal aid reforms, and especially the changes in rules governing rights of audience have forced the bar to become more bullish about competing directly with solicitors for work.

This has affected all areas of practice, with leading silk Andrew Arden QC demanding that barristers be allowed to enter partnership and The Lawyer's chambers of the year, St Philip's Chambers, becoming a plc.

This year, an argument over the Bar Council's training scheme erupted, its scheduling being blamed for the bar losing out on potential new recruits to the solicitors' side of the profession, which recruits much earlier and offers funding for the duration of the training period.

This dispute may yet lead to the top commercial sets pulling out of the Bar Council run scheme, called the Pupillage Application Clearing House (Pach).

But all this pales into insignificance when The Lawyer's front page story on 8 March told barristers the news they were are all waiting to hear – barristers are sexier than solicitors.

"Provided they are neither wet nor too dry, the associated drama of the courtroom rates this profession higher than solicitors," said Mary Balfour, director of the dating agency "drawing down the moon" which conducted a survey of the eligibility of different professionals.

David MacNeill of the Law Society countered: "There are some absolutely gorgeous solicitors, and there are more of them."