Can BLP compete with the bar?

Can the in-house advocacy unit at Berwin Leighton Paisner really compete with the independent commercial bar?


Berwin Leighton Paisner’s (BLP) litigation team is in growth mode. Since hiring silk Stuart Isaacs QC from South Square in October 2011 the firm has been working hard to secure instructions by selling itself as practice that can offer a one-stop barrister solicitor shop. All this as growth at the firm is grinding to halt, piling on pressure to perform.

It is little wonder then that litigation head Jonathan Sacher is rolling out what he calls a ‘five-prong’ strategic approach to litigation. This means bringing advocacy, IT and forensic accounting under the same roof.

He says that by offering clients the opportunity to cut fee deals, such as capping or fixing costs, the firm is attracting new clients and holding up litigation revenues.

All this is dependent on the use of the in-house advocacy unit, led by Isaacs who has 29 solicitor advocates on his team, as well as the in-house forensic accounting team and the firm’s contract lawyer group – Lawyers on Demand, which the firm currently holds an 80 per cent stake in.

There’s also IT support, solicitor services and case management available.

This is all indicative of a wider trend. As in-house counsel demand more bang for their buck firms are being forced to look again at how they offer services. The very idea of a one-stop shop and the costs savings that it can bring, will certainly be attractive to an in-house lawyer looking to resolve disputes quickly without breaking the bank.

“The in-house advocacy is client driven,” says Sacher. “It’s critical to the foreign buyer because they come to the law firm and expect everything to be done in house.”

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This is a mantra being put out by many firms that have built their own advocacy units. The bar maintains that international litigants are attracted to London because of the independent barrister skills on offer. Nevertheless, increasingly those barristers are having to compete with litigation firms for work.

Sacher says clients want to know that lawyers will run cases right up to the court steps. “There are virtually only two or three jurisdictions in the world that have a split profession like we do and the clients tend to say to us “I presume you’ll do the whole case to trial?’”.

Another advantage of having an in-house unit, Sacher asserts, is that clients aren’t shocked by surprise costs, such as a whopping brief fee. He reckons that clients can save as much as a quarter by using an in-house advocate.

Isaacs is a silk well-known for his arbitration skills, meaning that many of his cases are not in the public domain. “He is currently working on a jurisdiction dispute between New York and London ending imminently over a major US insurance company,” says Sacher, adding that he is “also instructed on a large power station arbitration heading for trial next month.”

When it comes to court outings, however, independent barristers are the advocates of choice for the vast majority of in-house counsel. This is particularly true for those bet-the-farm battles, which may be costly but for many big-ticket litigants are perceived to be well worth the spend.

BLP’s litigators are highly regarded by their peers. Sacher is right to talk up the in-house advocacy unit but it will be some time until the firm can take on the bar.