Tax barristers gatecrash the bar’s expanding £2m-a-year club

The superstars of the bar are continuing to command extraordinary fees, with 18 commercial and tax silks understood to have earned more than £2m last year.

Research carried out by The Lawyer has revealed that the tax bar is leading the pack, with two QCs in each of the main tax sets in the exclusive ‘£2m-a-year club’. The highly specialist nature of the work, plus a boom in tax litigation, has produced stunning results for the top barristers.

Graham Aaronson QC at Pump Court Tax Chambers and John Gardiner QC at 11 New Square are even understood to have gatecrashed the elite £3m-a-year club.

But the stars at the commercial bar are hot on the tax silks’ heels, with several profiting from big cases during the past year to move into the £2m bracket for the first time.

Brick Court Chambers has the most QCs in the exclusive club. Chambers head Jonathan Sumption QC has maintained his reputation as one of the best – and most expensive – silks at the bar, while up-and-coming stars Nicholas Green QC, Mark Hapgood QC and Mark Howard QC have joined him after busy years.

The list of top-earning commercial barristers is completed with the usual roster of superstars. Lord Grabiner QC of One Essex Court has been a member of the club for several years; and after a year that has seen him act on matters such as the new Gadget Shop litigation and the Apple Corps v Apple Computers case, his earnings have not dropped. Indeed, sources describe Grabiner’s rates as “astronomical”, but add that he is worth the money.

Geoffrey Vos QC of 3 Stone Buildings, who appeared on the other side of the Apple case, has not let his role as vice-chair of the Bar Council detract from his busy practice, and he remains on the list.

The barristers who led the claimants’ cases in the Equitable Life and BCCI trials, 20 Essex Street’s Iain Milligan QC and Essex Court Chambers’ Gordon Pollock QC, are both back in the club. However, it is believed that Pollock’s earnings have slipped below £3m this year, with no court appearances since he announced that the liquidators of BCCI were abandoning their case in November 2005.

BCCI proved profitable for Pollock’s opposite number Nicholas Stadlen QC of Fountain Court Chambers. Stadlen emerged from several years of focusing almost exclusively on the case for the Bank of England to enter the £2m-a-year group for the first time, and will continue to benefit from the reputation he earned during the trial.

Knocking on the doors of the £2m-a-year club are a number of established practitioners and silks working in areas that command lower fees. These include 7 King’s Bench Walk’s Jonathan Gaisman QC, who jointly led Ernst & Young’s defence of Equitable Life’s £2.6bn negligence claim alongside Hapgood.

There are around 30 barristers in the top 10 sets earning more than £1m a year, while many commercial silks and some senior juniors can expect an income of around £750,000. The magic circle of Brick Court, Essex Court, One Essex Court and Fountain Court continue to be the most expensive sets and also among the most aggressive with their rates.

Hourly rates across the board have remained static during the past year. Most silks are charged out at around the same rate as a partner in a law firm, with an average fee being £500 per hour. Junior tenants’ rates can start as low as £35 an hour for a new tenant, going up to around £350 per hour for a senior junior.

However, few of the top earners routinely charge by the hour. This is particularly common at the tax bar, where around 85 per cent of the work is advisory. Tax practitioners in the £2m-a-year club can command up to £50,000 for a case conference (including preparation).

Clerks say that advisory work is more lucrative than litigation, as befits an area where barristers are more knowledgeable about the law than skilled in advocacy.

The sector has benefited in the past months from a boom in the number of cases being brought as a result of a slew of new tax regulations and legislation on both domestic and EU levels. The main tax sets – Pump Court, Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers and 11 New Square – are small in comparison with the commercial bar.

Tax litigators in solicitors’ firms say that, while the rates are high, the tax bar is worth the money because of the nature of the work carried out and the amount of money at stake. The bar agrees, with one senior clerk in a commercial set commenting: “If a tax specialist can save his clients millions in one hour, then he is providing them with a big financial gain in the long term. Something like £35,000 is absolutely what clients are willing to pay for that.”