Combar takes the initiative

Combar is introducing marketing and education initiatives in order to dispel the ivory tower image, writes Linda Tsang. Linda Tsang is a freelance journalist.

The Commercial Bar Association now has over 900 members from 47 sets. Combar chairman Ian Glick QC of One Essex Court comments: “As we move into the next century, this area is one that a lot of lawyers generally want to get into.

“There is likely to be more commercial legal work and those at the commercial Bar are working at getting a sizeable chunk of that work.”

Combar is in the middle of initiatives to dispel the “ivory towers” image of the Bar, including a marketing initiative aimed at in-house lawyers.

According to Glick, this is an area “which most commercial sets see as a significant market for their services, and an increasingly large one. With anticipated expansion of direct access to the Bar, it is an inevitable move”.

The association is also involved in long-term behind-the-scenes work. Its committee on civil procedure rules has been involved in the consultation process on the draft rules and has commented on these in detail. Glick hopes that its proposals will have an impact on the new rules in their final form.

If the Bar votes to adopt continuing education for the whole Bar, the association's educational initiatives will have to expand to cover the whole of the commercial Bar. “What we don't want is to have barristers, at whatever level, sitting in lectures collecting points. Combar will have to provide continuing education which is of use to commercial barristers in their actual practice,” says Glick.

Last year placements were introduced to put commercial barristers into financial institutions. There were four last year, and this year there are 10. Institutions include SBC Warburg, NatWest, Merrill Lynch, Lloyds and Chase Manhattan Bank.

Most of these placements last for one week. Mark Hapgood QC at Brick Court Chambers, who runs the scheme, comments that “although one week seems short, the problem with a longer period is that, unlike solicitors firms, the chambers are not geared up to paying for people when they are not working as barristers. One week is long enough for there to be significant benefits – in particular, it gives the barristers a very important insight into the practicalities of banking business”.

The advantage of the scheme, he says, is that barristers “have an opportunity to see the dealing room in operation, and a loan being structured, with the security being assessed and arranged and also get an understanding of the burdens facing the financial institutions with the strict regulatory regime which is now in place”. Hapgood hopes that the scheme will be expanded to 15 institutions next year.

SBC Warburg was involved in the original discussions to set up the scheme with the former Bar chairman Peter Goldsmith QC. Spokesman Neil Stocks comments that the barristers who have been at SBC Warburg “have been surprised at how different it is, and they now have a better sense of the pressures which exist for internal lawyers, and how they differ from external lawyers”.

The main point, as Stocks says, is to enable those at the Bar to know more about clients' needs. The other objective is to develop expertise at the Bar which is not being utilised. “This scheme is a way of trying to develop that talent at the junior level, and that should not be missed out on.”

But he does caution that: “This scheme is a start – these initiatives, like all things, rely on persistence on both sides to get the flow-through that will make the difference, and gradually you will get to see the benefits.”

Stocks is encouraged that he has already been contacted by clerks looking to place barristers at the bank next year.

Camilla Bingham, a barrister of two years' call at One Essex Court has just completed a two-weeks placement at Chase Manhattan Bank, where she shadowed lawyers and compliance officers. “As a junior lawyer at the commercial Bar, it is difficult to give good legal advice to giant organisations such as Chase without some appreciation of how giants like that operate in terms of commercial objectives. As an opportunity of seeing how Chase ticks, it has been invaluable.”

But the initiatives are not just limited to London. This week, Combar's North American Committee will be looking at current problems in commercial litigation in Venice, with representatives from leading firms in the US and Canada.

This meeting ties in with Glick's view that “the most important thing for the future of commercial law for those practising it in London, whether at the Bar or on the solicitors' side, is that is that London should be seen as a major centre for handling commercial litigation”.

“If London is successful as a financial centre, I think it would be valuable if the service it provides in dispute resolution and associated areas is recognised, with lawyers here to provide that service and help clients with legal and regulatory problems.”

He adds: “The legal services market is much more fluid – the important thing is that the good work goes to the most competent, whatever their label.”