Barristers' clerks set conference pace

In a self-conscious attempt to rubbish the image of clerks as "old fashioned", the Institute of Barristers' Clerks (IBC) arranged to have the morning session of its first annual conference beamed live to video conferencing facilities in Manchester and the Bar Council's video conferencing suite in Chancery Lane. The plan was, very nearly, a great success.

The delegates in Manchester and Chancery Lane just about saw and heard everything that was going on, but only after a considerable time delay. Bringing the session to a close, IBC chairman Steve Graham observed wryly that the clerks in Manchester, displayed on a huge pull-down screen, were clearly still listening to Lord Falconer's opening address delivered two hours earlier. His audience cackled wildly as the Manchester clerks stared deadpan, waiting for the joke to arrive.

This minor technical glitch aside, the IBC laid on a model conference. About 300 clerks, out of a total membership of 800, attended the do on 18 July – hence the need for the overflow facility in Chancery Lane.

The Law Society has recently announced that its 1999 conference will be held at Eurodisney in a desperate bid to attract younger members of the profession. This conference was teeming with young junior clerks, alongside around 80 senior clerks.

Proceedings started ominously with Lord Falconer, the solicitor general, rattling through a defence of the government's policies towards the Bar, from naming "fat cats" to drawing up "co-terminus boundaries in the court system". After answering three questions, Falconer dashed off to watch a cricket match.

The centrepiece of the conference, a debate on the impact of conditional fee arrangements (CFAs), the withdrawal of legal aid and the future of the Bar – held in the style of TV programme Question Time with a panel of distinguished guests – was much livelier.

Dan Brennan QC, vice-chairman of the Bar Council, proclaimed to clear approval: "I don't see why we should all greet CFAs with the fervour of born-again christians. Just because it is the quickest and easiest option, it doesn't mean it is the best."

But another panelist, Leigh Day & Co senior partner Martyn Day, chose instead to confirm every clerk's worst fears. "In ten years' time 90 per cent of cases will only have one lawyer – a solicitor," he said. "Big firms like Clifford Chance will start buying up whole chambers." He predicted that in 15 years time the Bar would dwindle to about 3,000 specialists.

On this showing, clerks are uncertain and worried about the government's intentions. Deborah Anderson, from Littleton Chambers, wanted to know how success was defined in CFA cases. She asked whether a settlement at any price should be defined as a success if a legally-aided client could have got a better deal.

Brennan said the Policy Studies Institute was commissioning research into conditional fees, which would help the Bar Council produce a guide for barristers on how to calculate success fees and what constitutes success.

Anderson asked whether settlement was automatically a success? All agreed it was a good question, but no one had a definitive answer.

David Austin, from Ropewalk Chambers in Nottingham, wanted to know the difference between the various fee sharing options outlined in the recent Biddle report on the potential impact of CFAs on the structure of chambers.

Day no doubt cheered him up by saying that any structural change was "tinkering at the edges of the system while the flood waters rise".

The afternoon was given over to a number of workshops. David Milne QC, from Pump Court Tax Chambers, attempted to guide clerks through the government's changes to the way barristers pay tax. After an hour he checked to see how many members of the press were present before letting on that barristers would now be better off than they were under the old system.

The funniest turn of the day came in a workshop on, of all things, taxation. District judge Jeremy Cochrane went at his audience with one-liners straight from the Blackpool stand-up circuit. "When I married my wife 40 years ago she was seven stone. Now she's seven stone three. You expect a better rate of interest than that," he jested. What did it have to do with taxations? No one cared. It was 4.30pm.

Judging by the immediate feedback, the IBC can expect its conference to become as much a part of the legal calendar as the Bar's full-blown conference in October. And if Graham and Cochrane carry on topping the bill, it promises to be a lot more enjoyable.