Fees squeezed at commercial bar

As The Lawyer revealed on 7 April, Grabiner, the Labour peer and head of One Essex Court Chambers, now has a headline rate of £1,000. Although his two peers in the leading triumverate of commercial silks are able to charge comparable rates, the headline rates across the rest of the commercial bar have been hit hard. The impact of increased pressure from barristers’ instructing solicitors, greater competition at the commercial bar, and the fact that the anticipated upsurge in litigation that generally follows a downturn in the economy has failed to materialise, are all contributory factors.

Research by The Lawyer reveals that many of the UK’s top 40 commercial silks are now charging at the bottom end of their headline rates, with a range of £500-£600 per hour now prevalent. Historically, top commercial silks have been able to charge on average between £600-£750. For example, leading commercial and public law silk David Pannick QC is understood to be charging as little as £600 an hour for some commercial work.

Over the last few years, solicitors have increasingly sought a more detailed breakdown of costs, while taxation has also forced barristers to become more transparent.

As one of the City’s most senior litigators puts it: “You’re still quoted a brief fee, but clerks now attempt to justify them with recourse to hourly rates. Then, when the solicitor demands, ‘how the hell did you come up with that?’, they have an answer.”

One litigator tells of pay-ing Gordon Pollock QC £250,000 for a four-week trial, with an £80,000 “refresher” for his preparation several years ago, before clerks would quote hourly rates.

“I’ve no idea how he came up with that,” commented the lawyer.

One senior clerk said: “Obviously, there will be a variation in rates between different clients. There will even be different rates within a firm, as there will be individuals who are a nightmare, and chambers add a levy for having to deal with that.”

Another senior clerk said: “In many respects it’s the perfect market, but not one solicitors necessarily understand very well. Say a case settles two weeks into a four-month trial: a barrister will have lots of free time, and if the right solicitor comes along offering below normal rate with an interesting case, he’ll probably do it. The same barrister six months earlier could have been charging double the money.”

While most of the fees commanded by the QCs featured here do not hit the levels set by the top three, they are still above average commercial rates.

No chambers publishes the cost of its QCs, but The Lawyer has discovered that the average hourly fee for a QC belonging to one of the top nine commercial sets is just over £420 an hour.

The Lawyer’s research has also revealed that the commercial bar is not the biggest paymaster, but that barristers in specialist fields such as public law, competition, utilities and regulatory work can generate far greater revenues.

Barristers’ hourly rates 2003
Barrister’s name Chambers £s per hour charged
Lord Grabiner QC One Essex Court 1,000+
Jonathan Sumption QC Brick Court 1,000+
Gordon Pollock QC Essex Court 1,000+
Geoffrey Vos QC 3 Stone Buildings 850
Elizabeth Gloster QC One Essex Court 800+
Jules Sher QC Wilberforce Chambers 800+
Michael Brindle QC Fountain Court 800
Iain Milligan QC 20 Essex Street 750
Gabriel Moss QC 3/4 South Square 650-850
Charles Aldous QC Maitland Chambers 650+
Michael Crystal QC 3/4 South Square 650+
David Pannick QC Blackstone Chambers 550+
Julian Flaux QC 7 King’s Bench Walk 500+
Christopher Symons QC 3 Verulam Buildings 450+
Source: The Lawyer