The bar’s revolution

The bar has always relied on solicitor contacts for work referrals, but that tide is turning, says Katy Dowell

The bar has traditionally relied upon litigators to be its route to market. The recession, however, has brought about a fundamental power shift in that relationship, with City lawyers increasingly looking to the bar for client referrals.

The debate over direct access to the bar is well rehearsed. The bar’s Public Access Rules came into force in 2004, but concerned about how this might impact their valued solicitor clients, commercial barristers did not race to embrace the change. They did not want to be seen to be in competition with law firms. It was just not, well, gentlemanly.

Yet the global banking meltdown has thrust change upon the bar, forcing barristers to look beyond the traditional private practice lawyers for instructions.

It is in-house counsel that are pushing for the change and, consequently, putting some serious power into the hands of the advocates and their clerks.

It started with local authorities creating bar panels with the aim of cutting costs. Liverpool City Council has recently cut its legal spend by 20 per cent after ditching Exchange Chambers from its adviser roster (9 July 2012). The success of the panels in reducing legal spend and encouraging chambers to offer ‘value-added’ services such as free training is beginning to catch on.

BAE Systems, for instance, has a direct relationship with barristers at Matrix Chambers, Atkin Chambers and Henderson Chambers (29 November 2010).

Before it went to Linklaters, News Corporation first instructed One Essex Court’s Tony Grabiner QC to handle the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal (25 July 2011). Tesco is understood to have a preferred direct relationship with the bar and Barclays litigation director Jonathan Peddie says direct access is a useful tool (see video).

This new era was not brought about by the change in the direct access rules. One senior clerk states matter-of-factly: “It’s being driven by the financial director who wants to economise.”

The step change is forcing sets to think about how they market themselves. As one chambers chief executive put it: “The bar is beginning to embrace commercial disciplines. It used to be that there were conflicting brands within sets, individuals versus chambers as a whole. The bar is starting to get over that and starting to think as a combined entity.”

By presenting itself as a commercial venture and the fixed-fee alternative to the traditional bar, Riverview Chambers hopes to pick up some top-level instructions (20 February 2012).

While more commercial sets may not be keen on the fixed rates senior clerks are being asked for, a ‘menu’ of options when it comes to pricing, including block fees, fixed fees and conditional fees, is in demand. Some areas of the bar are so quiet that some are offering ‘buy one, get one free’ deals with chambers being paid a set sum to divide among the team – buy a silk, get a junior free.

Some solicitors might baulk at the idea of competing with barristers, but for clients added competition means better value and improved service levels.

Of course instructing an advocate only may not be appropriate in some disputes and law firms will always be in demand. One senior silk says it is about the two co-existing and feeding work to each other rather than it being a one-way street.

Senior clerks are being marketed to by litigators, the relationships are getting stronger and the bar is becoming more commercial. Outside the Inns and beyond the profession some might even suggest that the bar is catching up, but for many within the profession it is a relationship revolution.