The bar’s £2m-a-year club soars as £1m earners drop

Membership of that exclusive club of barristers earning in excess of £2m a year has swelled in the past 12 months, while the average income of counsel tenanted in the top 30 sets rebounded an impressive 23 per cent to £332,000.

Research compiled for The Bar Top 30, part of The Lawyer UK 100 Annual Report, revealed that although the number of million-pound-a-year earners has actually declined over the last year, those inhabiting that exclusive top tier of £2m-plus earners has increased and is now into double figures. It is also believed that Lord Grabiner QC and Gordon Pollock QC continue to inhabit their own private club, where membership comes with a £3m price tag.

Barristers whose earnings during the past 12 months are believed to have exceeded £2m for the first time include One Essex Court’s Christopher Carr QC, whose work on the Sumitomo litigation is understood to have catapulted him into the top tier of earners, and 20 Essex Street’s head of chambers Iain Milligan QC, whose time continues to be monopolised by the ongoing Equitable Life litigation. 3 Stone Buildings’ Geoffrey Vos QC has also enjoyed a tremendous year, dominated by his role advising Nina Wang in her dispute over the destination of her late husband Teddy Wang’s multibillion dollar estate, following his kidnap and presumed death in 1990.

Although each of the leading commercial sets boasts numerous barristers who consistently earn in excess of £750,000, breaching the magic £1m requires even the most revered counsel to have a consistent flow of well paid instructions for a full 12 months. Several of the top commercial sets report that fewer tenants managed to make that leap in 2004-05 than in previous years. However, up to 30 barristers tenanted in the top 10 sets – including at least one who is not yet a QC – still managed to record earnings in excess of £1m.

Hourly rates for commercial silks range from £350 to £2,500. At £350 an hour, a silk would have to work 2,857 billable hours, or almost eight hours every day of the year, to earn £1m. Meanwhile, those earning £2,500 an hour would have to work a mere 400 hours a year for millionaire status.

Daily rates during a trial peak at around £10,000, when based on a nine-hour working day including five hours in court plus four hours of preparation, though more typically range between £3,500-£6,000.

Rates for government work invariably face tighter controls, with silks’ hourly rates at the Treasury Solicitor’s Department will go up to about £250, with a daily refresher of £1,500.

The impressive 23 per cent hike in the average revenues generated by barristers tenanted in the top 30 sets comes on the back of only a 4 per cent increase in lawyer numbers. Total revenues for The Bar Top 30 were also up, to £555.1m from £530.5m last year.

Four sets posted revenue per barrister (RPB) figures in excess of £500,000, topped by 7 King’s Bench Walk, the chambers of Gavin Kealey QC and Julian Flaux QC, with RPB of £533,000. The biggest grossing set at the bar, Brick Court, recorded average RPB of £516,000, at Lord Grabiner QC’s One Essex Court RPB stood at £506,000, while commercial chancery giant, Wilberforce Chambers, which has continued to impress since being made The Lawyer’s Chambers of the Year in 2004, posted RPB of £505,000.

Barristers’ estimated earnings in excess of £2m
Michael Briggs QC Serle Court
Christopher Carr QC One Essex Court
Michael Flesch QC Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers
David Goldberg QC Gray’s Inn Tax Chambers
Lord Grabiner QC One Essex Court
Iain Milligan QC 20 Essex Street
Gordon Pollock QC Essex Court Chambers
Jules Sher QC Wilberforce Chambers
Jonathan Sumption QC Brick Court Chambers
Geoffrey Vos QC 3 Stone Buildings

Hourly rates for commercial barristers

Call (years) Hourly rate (£)
0-5 35-125
5-10 120-175
10+ 175-350
  Source: The Lawyer