British legal talent has always been exportable, albeit usually limited to silks, but the growth of many foreign economies has opened up the globe to a wider range of our home-grown barristers.
Not so many years ago foreign travel for the bar meant holidays or, in work terms, was the preserve of silks. Then it was the advocacy skills of the bar that were in demand; they still are, of course, and that demand is increasing. It is now recognised that the Chancery bar is made up of a cadre of specialist advocates. By that I do not mean they are simply practitioners who specialise in advocacy, although many are, but advocates who have specialisms.
Of course there are some Chancery practitioners who have a general practice, but the number of these is diminishing. Most practitioners now specialise in one or more areas of law, be that company law, insolvency, financial services, trusts, revenue, private client, pensions, property or even commercial. And they not only have substantial court practices, but also specialist advisory practices.
A specialist advocate and adviser in one – that is what makes the advocacy services of the Chancery bar so attractive to foreign, and indeed UK, clients. But foreign work is no longer available only to silks, with an increasing number of juniors now being employed on overseas work.
A number of jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong, will still only admit silks. Hong Kong, of course, has a well-established legal system with a thriving bar of its own. But the fact that its members tend to be less organised into specialist sets than at the Chancery bar provides opportunities for Chancery silks.
It also means opportunities for Chancery juniors to provide advisory and litigation services, although not advocacy services.
In other jurisdictions Chancery juniors are permitted to provide all of the above services, which is the result of a number of factors.
In some of those jurisdictions, such was the rapid rate of growth of their economies and financial services industries that initially they did not have the legal infrastructures to be able to provide the required specialist advisory, litigation and advocacy services. Over the years that resulted in more Chancery juniors being seconded for extended periods to law firms in these jurisdictions.
Some such secondments were for particular matters resulting, for example, from large international/cross-border insolvencies; others were to fill temporary gaps due to an upsurge in work or until a full-time employee could be found or admitted to practice.
Many secondees sought, and were granted, admission to the bars of these overseas jurisdictions and therefore were, and are, able to perform advocacy services.
Other secondments were to provide not only advisory services, but also many litigation services, such as drafting evidence or assisting in disclosure exercises.
There is presently a lot of talk about the modernisation of the way the bar provides its services and about a relaxation of the rules relating to the provision by the bar of litigation services. That is largely in connection with Legal Services Commission (LSC) proposals for direct contracting in crime, and no doubt shortly in family matters too. But the fact is that the Chancery bar has been participating in the wider provision of litigation and arbitration services, both here and abroad, for years. It has modernised the way it provides legal services. It is now more receptive to the needs of its clients and more accessible. It will work within teams of lawyers and other professionals rather than simply wait to be consulted.
Its motivation is to provide the services its clients need, not just those it chooses to provide. It knows its strengths, articulates them and markets those services and its expertise. It is no surprise that not only Chancery silks, but also Chancery juniors, are so much in demand, not only here but also abroad.
Such is that demand that some members of the Chancery bar, when asked what type of work they specialise in, have even been known to reply, “Overseas work”.
The traditional markets for Chancery practitioners, Hong Kong and the Far East, the Caribbean, Bermuda, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, continue to provide a good flow of work. But new markets are opening up too, particularly for arbitration work, such as Eastern Europe and, even further to the east, Kazakhstan.
There was much talk at the Commonwealth Law Conference held in Hong Kong last year (as there was at the World Bar Conference held in Ireland the year before) about the bars of various overseas jurisdictions softening their admissions policies to overseas advocates. That talk has not yet resulted in much action, but when it does the Chancery bar is well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that will be on offer.
Michael Todd QC is former chairman of the Chancery Bar Association