Northern bars seek strength through unity

Talk to legal practitioners about the Leeds bar 10 years ago, and the word “dabbling” invariably crops up. Barristers, it seems, tended to have broad practices, hopping from a criminal trial one day to a tax case the next.

It is an image the Leeds bar is keen to banish. In an increasingly competitive market, local sets are striving to convince solicitors that they offer a high quality, specialist service. They aim to stem the flow of work from Leeds firms to London or Manchester counsel.

The chambers of Andrew Campbell QC, 10 Park Square, is a good example of how chambers in Leeds are developing.

In less than a year, the set has appointed its first practice director, Vicky Thompson, recruited well-known practice manager Robin Butchard from St Philip's Chambers in Birmingham, undergone a full refurbishment and introduced an IT system.

It has taken on four tenants from neighbouring set 39 Park Square, signed up two associate tenants in Birmingham and has just recruited Paul Brook from Broadway House in Bradford.

It is now developing a website and a new brochure will be out this autumn.

“We hope to be seen as a set of chambers that is going places,” says Butchard.

At a more fundamental level, the chambers has divided its members into specialist practice groups – civil litigation, criminal and family – which can market their particular skills to local firms.

The set is not alone. Many of the Leeds chambers are reviewing their structures and marketing plans.

Common law set 30 Park Square, for example, has just gone live with its website. Senior clerk Jennifer Thompson, says: “It is a very, very competitive market.

“We are all having to recognise that and do something about it.”

Butchard agrees: “There is still a certain amount of work still going to London. The provincial bar has got to prove to solicitors that there's talent locally.”

Darren Finlay, a member of Sovereign Chambers, agrees that providing enough genuine specialists is key to the success of the Leeds bar.

Sovereign Chambers underwent a “complete makeover” two years ago, also splitting into specialist groups.

Finlay emphasises that members of a practice group must work predominantly, and ideally only, in that practice area.

But, he says, it is a chicken and egg situation. “Some big firms in Leeds don't use the Leeds bar, because they say it is not sufficiently specialised. But if they don't use us, we can't build up the critical mass to really specialise,” he says.

To some extent, Sovereign Chambers gets around this problem by calling upon chancery specialists from its sister set, 12 New Square in London.

But Finlay predicts that, in the end, the need to build up a sufficient bulk of work to afford to specialise will probably lead to Leeds chambers merging.

Already, local sets are starting to pool their resources to meet client demands. “We have found that some firms and insurance companies are entering into block contracts with sets,” says Finlay.

Sovereign Chambers, for example, has an agreement with Park Lane Chambers, also in Leeds, to carry out all work in the North for a particular insurance company. “We are actively working in co-operation to give the service they want,” says Finlay.

Enterprise Chambers is an example of how Leeds chambers can be vulnerable to competition from outside sets.

This dedicated commercial chambers successfully moved into the Leeds market 11 years ago, at a time when many Leeds-based barristers had broad practices.

Senior clerk Barry Clayton says: “Back in the mid-1980s, chambers in Leeds were dabbling in everything.”

But, he says, “over the last few years the competition has got stiffer”.

Other outside sets have also moved into Leeds. Leading Manchester chambers 40 King Street opened a Leeds annex last year and, in May this year, Broadway House Chambers announced it would be expanding into the city to service existing clients and attract new work from the growing Leeds market.

Finlay says: “One of the problems we have at the Leeds bar is that there is clearly more work than we can handle, so the work goes to Manchester and London.

“We need to get together as sets more if we are going to make the best of the competitive environment in Leeds.”

One Leeds barrister sums up the general feeling at the Leeds bar: “The opportunities are there. I think it is fair to say that we have not made the best of them at the moment and there are plenty of people in Leeds who still haven't got the message, but some sets are making a start.”

If the Leeds market is providing rich pickings for London sets, the same cannot be said for the Newcastle bar.

Unlike Leeds, the Newcastle bar is relatively small with, until recently, only four major sets. The bar is very busy and, not surprisingly, has been targeted by London chambers as a potential source of income.

Enterprise Chambers opened there two years ago and Plowden Buildings is due to open an annex there this autumn.

Both sets have recruited from the Newcastle bar. Charles Morgan, Ian Atherton and Soraya McKinnell joined Enterprise Chambers from Trinity Chambers. Simon Wood and Roger Cooper, also from Trinity Chambers, and Jeremy Freedman and Philip Kramer from New Court Chambers, are joining Plowden Buildings.

But Clayton says breaking into the local market is not proving easy. Although his Newcastle-based barristers, who are well known in the area, have got plenty of work, Newcastle remains a “very closed shop”.

If Enterprise's Newcastle barristers are too busy to take on a case, Tyneside solicitors will not give it to London members of the set but prefer to take the work to a different Newcastle chambers.

“There are some fairly major players in Newcastle, but they like to keep the work within the four walls of Newcastle,” says Clayton. As one local clerk says: “We are much more of an entity than in other parts of the country.

“We have all been around quite a long time. We all get on quite well and see a lot of each other both at work and socially.”

There is, says Simon Stewart, practice director at Trinity Chambers, more than enough work to go round.

But although Newcastle chambers downplay the impact of new arrivals on the scene, there are signs that local sets are getting into shape to respond to the competition. As one clerk puts it: “We are having to grow up a bit.”

Trinity Chambers, for example, has overhauled its management structure by, among other things, splitting into specialist groups, introducing new technology and creating the position of practice director.

Stewart says: “The restructuring caused a lot of turbulence and the effects are only starting to come through. We have introduced client care standards and there is much more discipline within chambers now, so that we can be cited as reliable.

“One criticism of the bar was a lack of reliability. That's what we are addressing.”