Is this the first chambers partnership in disguise? St Philips is now indisputably the largest set of chambers in the country, with every one of the tenants investing a minimum of £10,000 in the ‘business’. It has committed itself both to professional management under a chief executive officer (who now commands a staff of 35) and to continuing as a multidisciplinary civil and criminal practice – in direct contravention of current trends at the bar. How on earth does it think it can succeed where so many others have failed?
Its strategy is pretty simple and follows a formula implemented successfully by one of the set’s largest clients, Wragge & Co: be the best in Birmingham – and then, perhaps, think again.
Big is not always best at the Bar, but the arrival of 38 new tenants provides additional capital that can fairly be estimated to be pushing £500,000. It provides critical mass to the crime group, will increase the ratio of barristers to staff from 3:1 to 4:1 and boost turnover from £11.5m to £14m. The argument begins to make at least economic sense. The set might now choose to spend some of the new capital on reducing its significant bank borrowing, incurred when purchasing its impressive building; or to reduce chambers contributions; or to give some money back to members. A happy position to be in.
There are no significant examples of a law firm that practises crime while at the same time claiming to boast a credible commercial practice. St Philips believes that it can transcend the problems faced by other mixed sets (and previously law firms) with its flexible chambers contributions system, including five different desk charges, and by treating each group as a distinct business for marketing and clerking purposes.
In the short term, this poses no problems: critical mass will enable the set to invest heavily, for example in IT, and to pursue the distinctive requirements of each group. But in the longer term, the law firm experience has taught us that there will come a time when mixing such distinct practice areas is no longer viable.
A partnership would surely come to the conclusion ultimately that, with no opportunities to pursue its favourite game of cross-selling, it would be better for all concerned to go their separate ways.
But then again, barristers might decide differently. After all, the Bar doesn’t have to follow solicitors all of the time, does it?