What was once considered anathema to the legal profession is now a commercial reality. The regional Bar is learning to peddle its wares and market its sets, armed with a host of best working practices and media-friendly initiatives.
London chambers have marketed themselves for some time and, according to Paul Slater, practice manager at Sovereign Chambers in Leeds, their success has "rippled out to the provinces". He adds: "Over the past two years I've spent an increasing amount of time informing legal directories on what's been happening [in chambers] and as a response, I'm receiving more enquiries."
Corporate identity is becoming big business at the provincial Bar. And for Slater that includes developing media contacts outside the legal profession. "I'm actively encouraging [the media] generally to take an interest in barristers' chambers," he says. One such initiative sponsored by Sovereign Chambers is a community-based student art competition depicting law in 2000.
With more than 200 barristers and 12 QCs, the Bristol Bar "continues to demonstrate its excellence in fields previously regarded as only existing in London", according to John Royce QC, head of the city's Guildhall Chambers. A good example is Bristol's Mercantile Court. Set up three years ago, it is currently hearing more than 400 pension misselling cases. The vast majority of the plaintiffs' claims are being handled by a local barrister, under instruction by solicitors nationwide.
"The message that we are determined to get across to solicitor clients – and clients generally – is that we want to be customer-responsive and look at their needs," says Royce. Many sets, he says, are running themselves "in a more business-like fashion", with a number of chambers appointing business executives with specific managerial experience.
"In terms of planning, personal injury, crime and family, regional solicitors are using our chambers – and there's an abundance of work in Birmingham," says 5 Fountain Court's practice director Tony McDaid.
Part of McDaid's recruitment campaign is aimed at commercial and chancery law specialists. By attracting pupils and tenants from leading London sets he hopes to begin to address the perennial problem of regional solicitors instructing London counsel. 5 Fountain Court's claim to be the largest set of chambers in the UK – 79 barristers, eight of whom are QCs – has been part of its marketing strategy. "We have played on the quality of service you can give by being a bigger set," says McDaid.
He says a marketing plan – a concept once criticised and considered "a monster" by the profession – was recently endorsed by the Bar Council. The chambers plans to offer "a specialised service to specialist solicitors" by splitting chambers into six specialist groups, each with its own head and a team of clerks.
The development of chambers marketing has been "more evolutionary than revolutionary", according to Simon Reevell, a spokesman from the North Eastern Circuit Bar press office. "The approach depends on the work a chambers undertakes," he says. "For example, in Leeds you rarely see counsel doing criminal, family, or common law work "off-circuit'." The geographical structure of the North Eastern Circuit means there are plenty of able advocates but the practice of instructing local instead of London counsel has only been adopted over the past five to ten years, says Reevell.
One strategy to combat the practice of briefing off-circuit has been devised by James Allen QC of Chancery Chambers in Leeds. Allen has developed a series of mercantile seminars for regional barristers and solicitors which covers insolvency and chancery including landlord and tenant work – areas traditionally reserved for London sets.
Priory Chambers and 7 Fountain Court in Birmingham each had their own marketing strategy prior to their recent merger, explains joint practice manager Clive Witcomb. Practising as St Philip's Chambers, the city's latest "super-set" coalition has led to a specialist regrouping. "We have made a concerted effort to form five distinct practice groups: criminal; chancery and commercial; family; personal injury and medical negligence; property, planning and public law," says Witcomb.
All the groups at St Philip's Chambers meet regularly and are responsible for marketing themselves. Strategies include producing publicity material, setting up networking events for solicitor clients and organising seminars.
Increased investment in IT and communications systems such as videoconferencing are also enabling the regions to respond to client demands.
Andrew Menary, a barrister at Liverpool's Martin's Buildings and a Northern Circuit Bar representative believes "there are interesting times ahead" for the Bar. He suspects a number of sets will disappear in the wake of "a spate of mergers across the country". Menary says the new "mega-sets" will be in "a very powerful marketing position".
Taking its cue from other professions, the regional Bar's consolidation and better marketing strategies are improving its competitive position in the national marketplace.