The race for space

With demand for space at the Inns of Court continuing to outstrip supply, the search for hidden space within the Inns carries on apace.

Chair of the Middle Temple Estates Committee David Eady QC, of 1 Brick Court, says: “We are always looking for ways of expanding the space available. Every time something comes up we have four or five applicants. Our policy is to develop as much as we can.”

Anthony Lush, Gray's Inn Estates Bursar, says : “We have pockets of accommodation around the Inn but 10,000 or 15,000 square feet are simply not available at the moment. We could accommodate two or three smaller sets but certainly not any bigger ones.”

Gray's Inn has just bought the old police station on the corner of Gray's Inn Road and Theobalds Road, but it has no immediate plans to use it to provide extra accommodation.

While Lush believes the trickle of sets leaving the Inns won't become a flood, he does not deny there is a substantial disparity in rents.

The average rent at Gray's Inn is between £20 and £28 per square foot, according to Lush. “For comparable accommodation, you would probably pay £15 per square foot or less outside,” he says.

Eady points out that Inn rents are generally calculated on a different basis than commercial rents “outside”. “We only include the net useable area, not the passageways and common parts etc,” he explains.

However, for some sets, the premium the Inns are asking is simply too high. James Hunt QC's set recently moved from the traditional setting of King's Bench Walk to 36 Bedford Row, a growing enclave of sets that has moved out of the Inns.

James Hunt's practice manager Peter Bennett says: “When something does come up, the Inn wants such huge amounts of money that it's not viable. We are paying £70,000 a year for 4,000 square feet. The Inn was promoting something a couple of months ago where they were asking £250,000 a year for 5,000 square feet.

“I think many people have just got used to paying and are not aware of market levels. Inertia being what it is, people want to stay where they are.”

He has no regrets about moving. “If you are in a situation where you can get lovely accommodation to your exact requirements, at a competitive rent, close to the Royal Courts of Justice, and the alternative is struggling on where you are with inadequate space and IT at great expense, you move. Our entire wish list on facilities was met virtually overnight.”

Bennett points out that the thing which usually worries barristers most about moving out of the cosseted environment of the Inns is being saddled with a 20-year commercial lease, but this problem can be overcome relatively simply.

“There are ways you can structure the signing of your lease which avoid individual members having to give guarantees to the landlord and the bank,” says Bennett.

“We did it by setting up a limited company which signed the lease. With limited liability, there is no liability on the individual barristers. “We have a one year rent deposit deed which the landlord has access to in the event of default. That is the limit of any action they can take against any individual barrister. We also used the limited liability company to give the security the bank wanted.”

For a lucky few, it is still possible to move within the Inns and find suitable accommodation. The 47-strong set at 3 Gray's Inn Place recently moved to refurbished premises at 3 Verulam Buildings. Its senior practice manager, Roger Merry-Price, says: “Verulam was probably one of the last opportunities in any Inn in the foreseeable future where we would find three buildings next door to each other that could be used as one big set of chambers. We now have a set of chambers that will take us into the next century.”

Another chambers that has moved recently is David Young QC's set, which swapped 6 Pump Court for 3 New Square. Clerk Tim Fairburn says: “Now we are in one building, chambers runs much more smoothly. We may be on three floors, but what does it take to run upstairs? It's better than down two flights of stairs, across the courtyard and up three.”

The set now has two conference rooms and new pupils have the luxury of their own room. Fairburn says: “Before, if you had a conference you wanted to keep in chambers, it was a question of asking counsel to swap around for half a day. The alternative would be for counsel to go down to the solicitor's offices, but that takes away your control of chambers. Barristers were not working at their most productive.”

The chambers has also hit upon a nice little earner – renting out space to clients. Fairburn explains: “We have a five-week patent trial coming up in October. Our American lay clients have booked out our third-floor conference room solely for their use for an eight-week period. It is ideal for them because we back on to the High Court. You can't get any closer. The space will pay for itself.”

He says a lot of barristers had initial reservations about moving. “We were 6 Pump Court and everybody knew us as that. But, as it turns out, I don't think it has taken very long for our new name to sink in.”

The move itself was fairly painless. “We knew of other chambers who had moved and we determined not to repeat their mistakes,” says Fairburn.

“One set moved in over Christmas and didn't have any heating. It certainly made us aware of chasing up the architect and the Inn's surveyor to ensure things were ready.”

As sets continue to grow, the pressure on space at the Inns is likely to become even more acute. Given the finite accommodation available, the only way for sets to find space will be to use annexes. But with some up to 300 yards away from the main chambers, it is no wonder they are so unpopular with barristers and clerks.

For many growing sets, the only real alternative may be to find room outside of the Inns.

tips on moving

Get good advisers. Don't operate on the basis that 'somebody's friend' will give you a good deal.

Get in on the refurbishment of your building at an early stage. Make sure the specification is carried out to your requirements.

Try to visualise your new premises as you will be using them. For example, is there enough space for storage and expansion? Will the electrical points support IT and any upgrades to the technology?

Make sure the removal firm is up to the job. Consider moving particularly valuable items, such as your computer system, yourselves.

Work out in advance how much individualism you will allow in the overall feel of the chambers. Do you want a standardised 'corporate effect' or will you allow barristers to choose the decor which they want for their rooms.

Make sure the building is finished before you move in.