Shortly before the Christmas break another Bar Council initiative was unveiled: a European circuit for the bar of England and Wales. On the plus side, the exceptional David Vaughan QC is at its helm. The new circuit, based on the existing organisations that have been around since the 12th century in the UK, hopes to provide a forum for UK practitioners working across Europe to discuss developments and liaise with other jurisdictions.
According to Bar Council figures, there are already more than 550 barristers who have the majority of their practices in other parts of Europe.
The problem is that this new circuit is not attempting to recruit a more "European" membership. What's more, its influence, as with the existing circuits of England and Wales, is unlikely to be vast. But even if it simply brings barristers together to discuss European strategy it will be useful – after all, the bar is far from clear about how to attack this market.
Individual chambers do not have the resources to establish their own offices on the Continent. Several have already tried and had their fingers burnt. 20 Essex Street opened an annexe in Geneva, but by the late 1980s had shut it down because it had failed to bring in any business.
There are very few sets with an independent European presence. Roger Henderson QC's 2 Harcourt Buildings has an association with Brussels law firm Stanbrook & Hooper, independently branded as Stanbrook & Henderson, while 3-4 South Square recently recruited Dr Michael Peglow in the first step of a plan to create a fully fledged German operation. But the prevailing attitude seems to be that if top City firms can go to Europe and not make a profit, then how can the bar be expected to do any better?
There is one obvious exception in magic circle set Brick Court Chambers. David Vaughan QC's chambers has long had a Brussels annexe and last year formed an association with top Polish firm Wardynski & Partners.
But Brick Court has not simply followed Clifford Chance's A-Z of European expansion. The chambers does not regard the Brussels annexe as a cost centre. The two tenants based in Brussels concentrate on working for the European Commission (EC) and lobbying, providing an advantage over other sets vying for major UK litigation, which often has a European element.
On major UK-based commercial litigation, Brick Court can bring in its Brussels team to lobby and to ensure EC policy is considered while the litigation is run by the commercial experts in London. While a European base outside Brussels may not be necessary for many chambers, that does not put the UK bar in the European shop window and fails to solve the problem of being able to tap into a potentially highly profitable marketplace.
But there are alternatives to the expensive, independently-resourced permanent office. Essex Court and more recently Matrix have taken on foreign practitioners as associate members. Matrix, for example, has members in Australia, Geneva and Edinburgh and is recruiting to develop a network across Europe. Alternative models being considered by Matrix include a number of corporate or partnership vehicles to handle all non-UK litigation. Although reluctant to disclose details, the set has talked to a number of international law firms about developing associations with service protocols. Other possibilities that it might want to consider include setting up its own law firm outside the UK (rules permitting) or forming an association with another chambers. What about a set keen on European expansion, but not a direct competitor – 3-4 South Square maybe? There is also an array of foreign firms that would be keen to use an association with a set that would enable them to offer international coverage without losing their independence to the major UK and US international firms.
As ever, the parochial nature of the bar appears to be holding it back from a wealth of opportunities. Go on – dive in!
Matheu Swallow, associate editor email@example.com