Will the king be usurped?

11 King's Bench Walk has held the top spot at the employment bar for some time, but now high level moves are making gaps in its framework, leaving space for others to push their way up. Mark Brandon reports

John Hendy QC of Old Square Chambers: the set is tipped to knock 11 King's Bench Walk off the top spot

An interesting shift is going on at the employment bar. Until recently, 11 King's Bench Walk (Eldred Tabachnik QC & James Goudie QC) – the illustrious chambers that has been home not only to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine but also Prime Minister Tony Blair – was the undisputed leader in its field. However, last year's departure of Patrick Elias QC to become Justice Elias has left what one solicitor terms “rather a vacuum”. Elias was widely-regarded as one of the brightest barristers of his generation and there is no one of his talent in the upper reaches of the employment bar – as yet.

The set is still at the top (according to the Insider's Guide to Legal Services: Employment) but only by a small margin. At its heels are four sets, any of which could challenge 11 King's Bench Walk's dominance in a matter of years.

11 King's Bench Walk certainly has its fans among solicitors, but there are detractors as well. The set is eschewed by many users, with cost being a problem area. Of the silks remaining after Elias' departure to the bench, Eldred Tabachnik QC (“Very precise, very hardworking”), Chris Jeans QC (“Extremely good, hardworking and very easy to get on with”) and James Goudie QC (“Able and practical with it”) keep the set at the top. But recent attempts to boost silk depth at the set suffered something of a reversal when the highly-rated Simon Mehigan QC decided to return to 5 Paper Buildings after just four months at 11 King's Bench Walk (The Lawyer, 17 July).

Depth at junior level is good, with John Cavanagh the standout, and Nigel Giffin, Andrew Hillier, Sean Jones, Peter Oldham, Timothy Pitt-Payne, Jonathan Swift and Peter Wallington all well-regarded.

Among the chasing pack, Blackstone Chambers is tipped to overtake the old leader at some point and is feted by many as better value than 11 King's Bench Walk. Blackstone's most illustrious tenant is David Pannick QC (“Razor-sharp mind”), but Professor Bob Hepple QC (“One of the best all-round barristers ever”) and Paul Goulding QC (regarded by many as an excellent value senior junior but suffering, as do all new silks, from a sudden change in charge-out rates) also stand out as silks. But there is less depth at junior level than 11 King's Bench Walk, with Monica Carss-Frisk and Beverley Lang the highest rated, and Gerard Clarke and Dinah Rose among the other noted employment specialists.

Fountain Court is home to the excellent Nicholas Underhill QC, who has a fearsome reputation for collective rights work. A number of other, non-specialist silks also practise employment law, including Lord Goldsmith QC. There are, once again, fewer juniors than at 11 King's Bench Walk, but Professor Brian Napier is the most highly-rated, with Raymond Cox, Murray Shanks and Bankim Thanki also well-regarded.

In the ascendant is Littleton Chambers, rewarded with the arrival of restrictive covenants specialist Selwyn Bloch QC this year, and home also to Andrew Clarke QC, Clive Freedman QC and John Bowers QC. One user described the set as being “stocked with good juniors, very good and very cheap”. Shirley Bothroyd, Ian Gatt and Antony Sendall also stand out.

The tip for the chambers most likely to overtake 11 King's Bench Walk in time is Old Square Chambers. Although there is less depth at the very senior end (John Hand QC and John Hendy QC being the silks of most note), the set is stacked with excellent juniors, including Jennifer Eady, Jane McNeill, Philip Mead, Damian Brown, Louise Chudleigh, Tess Gill, Ijeoma Omambala, Paul Rose, Mark Sutton and Melanie Tether, to name but a few, and there is also high quality further down the call. Old Square Chambers is the one to watch especially as the juniors reach more senior call and come up for silk.

There is also quality elsewhere at the employment bar. Although it has been through turbulent times of late, 4-5 Gray's Inn Square is still home to Michael Beloff QC (although his future remains uncertain now that the proposed merger with Monckton Chambers has fallen through – he was due to depart for Matrix once the merger had been concluded) as well as one of only two five-star rated juniors, Tim Kerr (plus four-star Paul Brown).

Cloisters is “totally underrated” according to one solicitor, and the “visionary” Laura Cox QC, head of chambers, is one of the finest employment silks around. Other notable juniors include Jacques Algazy, Paul Epstein, Thomas Kibling and Karon Monaghan among others, giving the set enviable strength at the junior end.

Devereux Chambers is another with great quality at the junior end in particular, including Tim Brennan, Bruce Carr and David Griffith-Jones among the four-star juniors, plus Richard Clayton, Joanna Heal, Roy Lemon, Nicholas Randall, Ingrid Simler, James Tayler and Colin Wynter. Devereux is another dark horse tip for the future, particularly if more silks were to come by.

Other key sets include Essex Court Chambers (notably home to one of the toughest silks around, Andrew Hochhauser QC), Matrix Chambers (where Cherie Booth QC gets very good reviews and also home to the only other junior five star, Tom Linden) and oft-overlooked set Doughty Street Chambers, which has an enviable reputation for civil rights work but has much to offer on employment.