Bar revenues continue to rise

The bar has fled for its extended summer break, content that it continues to defy the rumours of its pending demise, fuelled by burgeoning numbers of solicitor-advocates and plummeting numbers of court cases.

Total revenues for The Lawyer’s Bar Top 30 are up yet again, to £555.1m from £530.5m last year; and perhaps more importantly, the average revenue per barrister of all barristers tenanted in the top 30 sets has rebounded from last year’s disappointing £269,563 to £332,000. This 23 per cent hike comes with only a 4 per cent rise in lawyer numbers.

But it’s not clear how the top commercial sets have been able to continue improving their financial performances. Their long fight against plummeting volumes of High Court litigation is well catalogued. That decline has now spread to the appeal courts, with the Court of Appeal – for the commercial bar at least – experiencing a similar drop in volume (see story, page 2), with the top five sets making around 10 per cent fewer appearances there than in 2003-04.

Whatever the proclamations of law firm litigation teams, their reliance on the bar’s brains and advocacy expertise – increasingly paper-based, admittedly – seems as strong as ever.

One area of practice that continues to support flagging revenue streams is public law.

The House of Lords bucked the downward trend and continues at full capacity. In contrast to the Court of Appeal, the top five sets by volume made 10 per cent more appearances than in 2003-04. The only three sets in the top five for number of appearances in the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords in both 2003-04 and 2004-05 are all leaders in the field of public law: Blackstone, 39 Essex Street and Matrix.

Freshfields’ litigation group, which overtook Lovells to claim second spot for the UK’s biggest-grossing litigation teams in the 2004-05 financial year, behind Clifford Chance, is also being driven by its public and regulatory dispute resolution team. In London more than 60 per cent of Freshfields’ litigation work is now defined as public/administrative law.

The regional bar boasts three sets in this year’s Bar Top 30: Manchester’s Kings Chambers and the ever-present Birmingham giants No 5 Chambers and St Philips. All are eligible to be called the ‘most improved’ set of the year, with Kings posting a 20 per cent rise in turnover, and No 5 and St Philips reporting 16 and 14 per cent hikes respectively.

They will only be able to continue to shine if they can successfully resist the migration of a London bar actively seeking new revenue streams.