All-change as sets opt for fast-track growth

The “football transfer culture' at the Bar may be seen as an “undesirable trend', but it is nonetheless an irreversible one, writes Shaun Pye

When 13 Old Square recruited six juniors from rival sets last autumn, clerks were quick to shrug it off. “It's like a stone hitting a pool,” said one. “There'll be a few ripples, but then things will settle down.” Unfortunately for him, it has started raining stones.

Upstairs at 13 Old Square, Charles Sparrow QC's chambers hired four barristers last year. Wilberforce also poached four, three coming from 2-3 Gray's Inn. Over in Temple, 10 King's Bench Walk lost seven, but recruited 14 barristers.

Then last November Fountain Court abandoned its policy of organic growth, opting for the fast-track route of lateral hires. It advertised for practitioners in aviation, intellectual property and EU law and received 55 applications. Five new tenants join this month.

A recent confidential survey of sets by accountants Binder Hamlyn shows why the Bar thinks bigger is better. Tenants in larger sets not only enjoy lower costs but bring in more revenue per head than colleagues in smaller sets. If sets continue to market aggressively, they should not have a problem finding recruits.

The effects of this football-transfer culture are currently obscured by the economic upturn. Binder Hamlyn's survey shows business booming at the Bar. Total income for 1996-97 was up 10 per cent from the previous year. Just over half the sets increased revenue by over 10 per cent, with only a tenth reporting a decline. The results are roughly similar to the rest of the legal profession.

But come the recession, will some commercial/chancery sets go to the wall?

Fountain Court's experience shows that few sets are immune to the predators' approaches. They got Michael Crane QC, one of the leading aviation silks, from 5 Bell Yard, the leading set in aviation. Senior clerk Kevin Moore admitted it was a big shock the first time his aviation group had lost a tenant.

Now he acknowledges his chambers may have to follow Fountain Court's lead by recruiting laterally.

There are particularly rich pickings in Lincoln's Inn. Both 1 and 5 New Square have lost a number of tenants recently, to both chancery and commercial sets. Other chambers will, no doubt, be similarly hit.

One chancery specialist said: “Parts of the Chancery Bar are stuck in 1939. A lot of people round here still refer to photocopies as photographs.”

Client care is also “archaic”. “Documents are sent out covered in hand-written corrections. At the end someone weighs the papers and says that'll cost you whatever. It's like being a plumber.”

Some chambers do not have a constitution. Anthony Martino, one of Fountain Court's new recruits, said of his old set, 5 New Square: “The closest we had were some vague principles. This has caused problems in a lot of sets, especially with women who want to take maternity leave and are unsure whether they will have to continue contributing fully to Chambers expenses.”

By contrast, Martino says Fountain Court runs “like a City firm”, with a constitution, a strong identity, a strategic plan and a “housekeeper I won't have to rummage around for a tea bag when clients arrive anymore”.

Ian Duggan, senior clerk at 5 New Square, says: “Increased movement of tenants is an undesirable trend for the Bar. It will undermine solicitors' confidence in the system, upsetting traditional relationships.”

He says recent departures at his own set are unfortunate but of little consequence. “If someone wants to go, it's better that they do. Success is built on maintaining a loyal client base with excellence of service.”

Can his set learn anything from Fountain Court? “Most chambers have accepted the need for a more commercial approach,” says Duggan.

But he thinks constitutions impose restraints on the independence which attracts many to the Bar.

And as for aggressive recruitment, he says: “Frankly, there's little substitute for nurturing people from within.”

Many clerks shrug off talk of a crisis at the Bar. Old wise heads point out that advertising and poaching tenants is hardly new and a spate of defections crops up every few years.

Nevertheless, Ric Martin, chief executive at Fountain Court, says many offers made to applicants remain open. They also failed to find any EU lawyers. He assures us that they're still looking.