The bar

Managing the bar

The past few months have been somewhat of a merry-go-round at the bar, with a number of sets bringing in new heads of chambers, chief executives and senior clerks.
9 Gough Square kicked off the fun when it hired John Kerr from the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland as its new chief executive in the summer. Kerr replaced the retiring Joanna Poulton, entering as the set prepares for an expansion programme.

Matrix Chambers has also hired a new chief executive, bringing in 2-3 Gray’s Inn Square’s chambers director Lindsay Scott to replace Nick Martin, who has gone to Bindman & Partners. 2-3 Gray’s Inn Square is now on the hunt for Scott’s successor.

Expansion was also the key behind 2 Harcourt Buildings’ appointment of Stone Chambers’ senior clerk Paul Coveney in October. Coveney’s arrival coincides with a move into new premises, described by head of chambers Robin Purchas QC as a “major step forward”.

October ended with four chambers exchanging clerks. 4 Pump Court is losing Simon Slattery to construction specialist Atkin Chambers, but is hiring Essex Court Chambers’ Jon Robinson to boost its junior clerking team. In turn, Atkin is bidding farewell to John Wiggs, who is taking up a role as senior team clerk with Maitland Chambers.

Meanwhile, two sets, Four New Square and Keating Chambers, have new chambers heads, but for different reasons. The esteemed Justin Fenwick QC steps down as head of Four New Square in January, to be replaced by Roger Stewart QC. Stewart plans to keep building the set’s reputation as one of the more progressive outfits. At Keating, John Marrin QC takes over from Vivian Ramsey QC after Ramsey’s well-deserved elevation to the bench.

The importance of the management role in barristers’ chambers is more marked than ever in these days of increased competition, and all the new incumbents will have their work cut out building their sets’ profiles with both solicitor and professional clients.

The battle over funding

Legal aid funding has been the phrase on everyone’s lips throughout the autumn, with barristers across the country laying down their wigs in protest at continued cuts. Lord Carter of Coles is hard at work examining the whole legal aid system, and has impressed the bar enough to persuade the militant Midland and Northern circuits to return to work. While the refusal to accept instructions lasted, the effect was noted in criminal chambers. Clerks found the sensation of having to refuse work unusual and noted that the atmosphere in chambers was distinctly quiet.

Far from being hostile to the situation, solicitors supported the barristers’ action. The Law Society gave guidance, recommending that solicitors should not try to take the place of a barrister if no suitable practitioner could be found, resulting in a number of cases falling through.

The bar now awaits the results of Lord Carter’s review, hoping that the report will be in favour of raising criminal legal aid. Of course, the real outcome depends on the actions that Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, decides to take. Further refusal to raise the rates could well mean more action from practitioners.

At the same time, prompted by a Parliamen-tary question from Labour MP Andrew Dismore, the Government published its annual list of the highest-earning criminal defence barristers for the past year. 2 Bedford Row’s Jim Sturman QC topped the list with fees of £1.2m, but promptly made waves by speaking out against cases that drag on and waste taxpayers’ money.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the top-earning barristers was that this year saw the first juniors on the list, giving the lie to the perception that massive fees are the sole preserve of silks. It shows that while life at the very junior end of the criminal bar is still tough, with perseverance those without ‘QC’ tacked on to their names can make a decent living.

The future of the bar

At the civil bar, earnings are healthy – particularly at either end of the profession. Last Monday (31 October), groundbreaking research by The Lawyer revealed that by October 2007 several sets in the bar’s top 30 will be paying £40,000 or more to pupils. The news comes shortly after it emerged (5 September) that 11 silks are now believed to be earning in excess of £2m a year, while the average earnings for a barrister in one of the UK’s largest sets is £332,000.

The increases come despite continued evidence that the number of cases in court has dropped, and show that far from succumbing to the threat of competition from solicitors, the independent bar is thriving. Indeed, litigators across the City say they value the role that barristers play in resolving disputes, whether that be a written opinion right at the start of proceedings or a key advocacy role before the House of Lords.

Chambers across the country claim their juniors are as busy as ever. The problem for the larger sets in the future is going to be giving pupils and new tenants enough advocacy experience. It is all very well paying a junior £150,000 to support a top silk on a big case, but they will not get the chance to stand up in court. For the current generation of juniors to become the next generation of Jonathan Sumptions and Gordon Pollocks, they have to start lower down and handle their own small cases.

Diversity on the bench

Judicial diversity continues to be a hot topic, with the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer getting into a row with the Commission for Judicial Appointments over its findings that too many judges are white, male and educated at Oxbridge, or as one critic put it: “Male, stale and very, very pale.”

The Government is still pushing the diversity card, though, with the appointment of Baroness Usha Prashar as the new head of the Judicial Appointments Commission, which starts work in April 2006.

Hopefully, Prashar will concentrate on picking the best people for the job, whatever their background. The recent batch of High Court appointments, which included IP star David Kitchin QC, appears to be a good example of where the right choice was made. Let us hope that Prashar continues in the same vein.

Monthly column Coming up: Regional: 14 Nov In-house: 21 Nov Management: 28 Nov The bar: 5 Dec