Practice director strikes deal with Fountain Court

John Malpas reports

THE FORMER practice director of the largest UK set has agreed an out of court settlement after a dispute which he says typifies the tensions between barristers and managers.

Details of the settlement between David Symonds and 5 Fountain Court are not being revealed but Symonds says he is happy with the package.

He left the set last spring following a contractual dispute and had threatened a constructive dismissal claim before the two sides finally came to an agreement earlier this month.

According to Symonds the dispute centred on the profit related element of his pay package which, he says, the set wanted to reduce from 1.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent.

His departure ended a three-year term as practice director which witnessed turnover rise by 85 per cent and practice size increase by 40 per cent to a total of 63 tenants.

The pay negotiations were conducted in the light of the increased turnover and Symonds says he was prepared for a reduction in the profit share. He was not, however, prepared to see it drop to 0.5 per cent.

Symonds' departure from 5 Fountain Court coincided with a dispute at 3 Fountain Court which saw senior clerk Malcolm Elder depart after a vote of no confidence among the barristers.

And while Symonds' departure was over his contract, he believes the dispute is symptomatic of a wider problem.

He says practice managers and senior clerks up and down the country have already been or are in danger of coming into conflict with barristers as sets modernise without the appropriate management structures in place to cope with change.

"I believe one big problem is that there is too much democracy with too many committees," he says. "The day-to-day running of the chambers should be in the hands of the practice manager with the head and deputy head of chambers and every six months there should be a meeting."

Symonds had travelled up to Birmingham from London after he was head hunted from Devereux Chambers, where he had been for over 20 years, by the then Fountain Court head of chambers Harry Woolton QC.

Symonds says: "What they were offering was exciting. It was to take on a new role. They knew they were going to move to new premises and they wanted to make the set the best and biggest in the country."

Symonds played a key role in the set's move to new premises in 1993 and was also involved in the introduction of video conferencing.

But he believes his main contribution to the set was to divide it up into 11 specialist groups with their own experts and clerks.

This was his strategy to stop provincial work from going to London. Local solicitors' firms told him they wanted specialist rather than generalist barristers.

"There was resistance from some of the barristers but by the time I left it was working very well. It was like having 11 sets of chambers under a single co-ordinated administration."

Head of chambers at 5 Fountain Court, Anthony Barker QC, will only say: "We've had a parting of the ways, we've come to terms and I regard the whole matter as confidential."