Best value – at $1000 an hour

Law firms are understandably eager to recoup the £150,000 or so they spend producing each new lawyer, but at £150 an hour or more for a trainee, these have got to be some truly special people.

Newly qualified junior barristers at any of the leading commercial sets cost an average of £50 an hour, and for £150 you can have your pick of advocates with in excess of five years’ experience. But do barristers really represent better value than solicitors?

It’s very easy to scoff at the ‘best value’ bar argument when silks command hourly rates from £1,000 to infinity, brief fees top £3m and daily refreshers of up to £10,000 are often circulated. But these are solely for the handful of barristers inhabiting the rarefied elite of the commercial bar – and even a daily refresher for Lord Grabiner QC can mean you get his undivided attention for less than £1,000 an hour.

In the world of ordinary mortals at the bar, hourly rates for silks at the top 10 sets start at around £300, while junior barristers of 10 years’ call – longer than most partnership tracks – command anything from £175 to £350 an hour. This is a long way short of the £500 an hour average for the City’s finest partners (that’s before you even get to the additional burden of their assistants, trainees and paralegals).

Not that the commercial bar can be considered cheap compared with solicitors. While a couple of sets carry the odd tenant whose earnings failed to top £10,000 last year, newly qualified junior barristers at the top sets should expect their earnings to be pushing £100,000 in year one, and at least one senior junior this year followed in the footsteps of Lawrence Rabinowitz QC in topping the magic £1m before having taken silk.

Where the bar is struggling is in finding fresh avenues for growth, with total revenues hitting a plateau over the past couple of years. Only One Essex Court – runners-up to Matrix for Chambers of the Year at last week’s The Lawyer Awards, and Wilberforce Chambers, winners of the award in 2003, were able to post anything near double-digit growth.

That growth will not be sustained by straightforward commercial litigation – claims in the Queen’s Bench Division plummeted from 120,000 in 1994 to under 15,000 last year. Many have turned to the Chancery Division, where Wilberforce reigns supreme; but although more stable, it too cannot supply the volume of work necessary to satisfy a hungry commercial bar.

Expect the bar to follow its solicitor colleagues with a rate rise anytime soon.