Set for action

A host of publicity has surrounded the formation of Matrix chambers, not least because of its high profile tenants. Matheu Swallow and Claire Smith ask whether the interest is justified or merely the result of a clever PR campaign.

Matrix has arrived. Well, it is on its way at least – it will not be hitting a courtroom near you until April – but the question at the heart of the recent blockbuster film remains: "What is the Matrix?"

Despite the fanfare that accompanied the slick PR launch, it is unclear what Matrix "legal practice", as it is calling itself, will offer, and what will make it different from any existing set of chambers.

One cynical senior practice manager says: "It's all about catching headlines, not substance."

Matrix currently comprises 22 barristers, including silks Nicholas Blake QC, Clare Montgomery QC, David Bean QC, Ken Macdonald QC, and, of course, Cherie Booth QC.

The new organisation is branding itself as a specialist in human rights law, offering advice in those areas that cut across existing criminal, civil and commercial practice.

It is true that all the leading commercial sets have, for some time, been attempting to beef up their European and public law practices to cater for the huge growth in international law and to accommodate the impact of the Human Rights Act when it comes into force later this year.

However, commentators are critical of a set founded on the principle of human rights expertise.

One senior clerk says: "They are branding this as a human rights chambers but we all know the impact of the Human Rights Act will be quite wide. What I don't understand is how they will attract clients.

"In a financial services case, for example, there are human rights angles that can be thrown at it but they are not necessarily fundamental."

One practice manager says: "Everyone is trying to get into this field. But courts have already made it plain that they will be very dismissive of wild Human Rights Act angles. Everyone will have to get to grips with the Human Rights Act, it will be so commonplace that everyone will be an expert in it."

A practice manager at another leading set says: "Human rights is a generic term, as is public law. I don't believe you can set up a chambers with such a woolly reference.

"At 4-5 Gray's Inn the bread and butter work is the planning and commercial practices, the jam is the public, and human rights is simply a veneer."

Murray Hunt, a member of Matrix's management committee, says: "Clients will need immediate access to human rights advice. We are trying to bring together people with two strands of expertise, specialists in particular areas in their own right, but also in general law which cuts across those areas, be it public, human rights or international law. What's emerging is a form of constitutional law. We are trying to force the pace of that trend."

Along with its human rights focus, Matrix claims it will offer clients a whole new way of working.

The bumph handed out at the press launch cites 14 things that are supposedly different about Matrix – many of which contradict current trends at the bar.

While the new set plans to offer a combination of civil and criminal practitioners, elsewhere the view is that these areas are better kept separate. The latest example of this is Coram Chambers, a set created by the merger of the civil and family teams from 4 Brick Court and Lindsay Burn's Queen Elizabeth Building.

The desire to split civil and criminal follows similar moves in solicitors' firms, motivated by different levels of profitability, fears about the future of publicly-funded criminal defence work and different working practices.

One senior clerk says: "Their client base is predominantly local authorities and the public sector doing a mix of civil and crime, which most sets of chambers have moved away from because it is perceived as not workable."

The second distinguishing feature of the new set is its size. With only 22 barristers, it is very small – and falls far short of its original target number of 35.

Although further recruits will certainly be found before Matrix launches in April it intends to remain "relatively small" which will make it difficult to fulfil another of its objectives – to offer a "team approach".

"We're very flexible about working with members from other sets, even those we've been in.

"We will also be working with other non-barrister lawyers and employing paralegal support," says Hunt.

Generalist chambers have consistently been looking to expand to offer groups of practitioners in specialist areas.

Of course, size is not a prerequisite for success – Hardwicke Building, one of the largest sets in the country, has been trying to shrug off its reputation for "quantity not quality" for many years.

However, the experience of George Carman QC's New Court Chambers is testament to the fact that small common law sets are left to struggle if several tenants leave.

Carman says: "There is a climate of change at the bar. A number of barristers have a feeling of instability leading to a tendency for people to move. Seven or eight have left New Court over a 12 month period reducing our number to 23 or 24."

This, he says, was a material factor to be considered when agonising over the future of his set.

Carman is joining 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, the home of seven future Matrix barristers, which is also in advanced merger talks with Monckton Chambers.

The Matrix launch was handled by Shandwick, the PR company that handles the Bar Council account, and many legal commentators have focussed on the spin and questioned the substance.

The client base for many of the Matrix tenants comes largely from local authorities and the public sector, which has led some at the bar to view the establishment of the set as an attempt to break into new, more commercial fields.

"For some of them it simply seems to be an exercise in rebranding – in a new area. In other words they are trying to reinvent their practices," says one practice manager.

This is perhaps understandable, given the threats currently facing publicly-funded work. And if this is so, their main competition will be sets such as Blackstone, Devereux and 4-5 Gray's Inn.

Blackstone is currently ranked on the periphery of the magic circle of commercial sets and already has a leading reputation for public law work.

Devereux also has an established reputation in commercial, public and human rights work, and if 4-5 Gray's Inn does merge with Monckton the new set will comprise 75 tenants including 25 silks, thrusting it right up in the premier league.

It is not simply the strength in depth that these chambers can offer their tenants but the financial clout that comes with such size.

None of the five silks signed up to Matrix are estimated to earn much more than £200,000 a year, with senior junior Rabinder Singh believed to be the biggest earner.

Given that chambers' expenses generally equate to around 20 per cent of earnings, with personal expenses of approximately a further 20 per cent, those at Matrix are certainly not the "fat cats" the bar is so famous for.

One senior clerk says: "The problem they will have is that Rabinder Singh is by far their biggest earner. He will be carrying the rent which could cause a lot of internal politics."

Among the other 14 points intended to set Matrix apart from other chambers is its inclusion of four academics.

But while most accept the importance of having resident academics, it is thought that four is too many in such a small set.

Another point of difference is that the chambers will be professionally managed, with a chief executive, a democratically-elected management committee and no head of chambers.

But there is nothing new in this idea – a swathe of chambers directors and chief executives have been pouring into the bar over the last few years, and is such common practice that many provincial sets have also jumped on the bandwagon.

However, many of the new chambers directors are, in practice, simply glorified administrators and their employment has been an exercise in rebranding, coupled with the classic, and still common, response to any sign of a failing practice – blame the clerks.

While it is accepted that the traditional job description for a senior clerk has changed dramatically, the vast majority of the new generation of clerks are able to combine traditional clerking skills, such as managing tenants' diaries and negotiating fees, with the new management tasks – business strategy, and developing and marketing a chamber's brand.

"The suggestion of a different way of running things is odd," says one well-established chambers director. "They seem to be setting up in exactly the same way as any other. They will be just changing titles and bringing in complete outsiders who will not know how to do things."

It is noteworthy that three of the four magic circle sets – Brick Court Chambers, Essex Court Chambers and One Essex Court – employ senior clerks and not chambers directors or chief executives.

So if it was not a desire to forge a new way of practising at the bar, what did bring what Carman calls a "a collection of people of disparate disciplines with the common thread of human rights" together?

One chambers director says: "They have chosen to come together because of the problems back at their old chambers – it's not entirely profession-driven. It's not some new panacea. It's five new high-profile people coming together and two years down the line they will no doubt be a normal chambers in the conventional way. But probably a successful one."

A leading silk agrees: "I think it's viable, but the main question is whether you can really sustain a human rights set as such or whether people go to employment chambers for employment law and public law chambers for public law. It all arises from dissatisfaction at 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, which has been a divided set for a few years."

Talk of a breakaway set emerging from 4-5 Gray's Inn has been around for years. Approximately three years ago, rumour circulated that a similar project had been mooted involving several names now appearing on the Matrix tenancy list.

Publicly, chambers and practitioners welcome an attempt to launch a new chambers in such challenging times for the bar, and look forward to greater competition.

Privately, however, there is a consensus of opinion that is highly sceptical of the new chambers.

And, while it is impossible to judge Matrix until it is up and running, and the bar is notoriously cynical of new ventures, so much of what the new set represents flies in the face of modern chambers practice.

One unimpressed clerk sums up the feeling. "They are launching it as a new venture but to me it is as a set of chambers was 20 years ago."

Nicholas Blake QC

Blake will be one of the leading lights at Matrix, and will chair the management committee. As a highly-regarded public law specialist he is particularly prominent in immigration, asylum and housing issues. He has also been involved in a number of top miscarriage of justice cases. Called to the bar in 1974 and having taken silk in 1994, Blake joins Matrix from Two Garden Court.

Earlier this month Blake was counsel to Justice for Women in the failed attempt to overturn home secretary Jack Straw's decision to allow convicted rapist Mike Tyson into the UK.

He has also appeared in important cases on public law and constitutional rights, by way of judicial review, civil actions and criminal appeals in the domestic courts, the Privy Council, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

He is an expert in civil actions against abuse of power, working on Reeves v Commissioner of Police, which dealt with the liability of police for a suicide death in custody.

His miscarriage of justice cases include Judith Ward in 1993 and Thomas and Hilaire in 1999.

One leading silk says: 'He is very well regarded and does a lot of public law. He has had a busy year and been involved in many of the leading asylum cases.'

Cherie Booth QC

As the Prime Minister's wife, Booth is the most high-profile member of Matrix, although she will not head it. She is not as senior as Nicholas Blake QC, who qualified two years before her, but her employment and discrimination expertise is widely recognised.

In public law she has a large practice advising local authorities and other public bodies, and acts for individuals and commercial organisations challenging decisions of public bodies in the courts.

Most recently she has come head-to-head with the Government after advising the Trades Union Congress that the new parental leave regulations are faulty, and she has advised widely on the implications of the Human Rights Act.

Booth has been instructed as senior counsel for two former CMS Cameron McKenna Russian assistants in their claims of discrimination and unfair dismissal against the firm.

She represented the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in a successful challenge to the changes in rules for the early retirement of teachers.

Top employment silk John Bowers QC says: 'Cherie is very highly thought of in both employment law and public law – she does quite a lot of local government work. She seems to be the catalyst for Matrix chambers and she is a good name for them to have.'

Rabinder Singh

Singh specialises in public law, human rights law and employment law and is likely to be by far the biggest money spinner at Matrix.

He joins the set from 4-5 Gray's Inn Square with silks Cherie Booth QC and David Bean QC. He was called to the bar in 1989.

He appears regularly both for and against public bodies.

His most notable cases include acting for the Home Secretary to decide whether Derek Bentley should receive a posthumous pardon, and in the case to decide whether Mohamed Al Fayed should be given a British passport.

He is currently representing the Belgium government in its legal action against the Home Secretary on the future of General Pinochet. The Belgian government is hoping to prove that Jack Straw broke international cooperation agreements by not allowing access to the former Chilean dictator's medical records – and has filed its case with the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Singh also has extensive experience in judicial review, local government law, European (community and convention) law and mental health law.

Recognised as one of the leading public law juniors at the bar, he is described by one barrister as 'exceptionally good – an extremely nice guy with whom it is a pleasure to work'.

Kenneth Macdonald QC

Macdonald is a criminal defence silk specialising in complex fraud, sanction busting, espionage and major offences of political violence. He has represented top IRA figures, Sikhs, Palestinians and Algerians accused of shootings and bombings in London and abroad.

Macdonald was called to the bar in 1978 and took silk in 1997. He joins Matrix from Two Garden Court.

His big cases include the Warrington IRA bombing, the IRA mortar attack on Heathrow Airport, the 1996 IRA attempt to destroy London's electricity supply, and the 1996 Palestinian bombing of the Israeli Embassy in London. Macdonald is retained to represent ex-MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson in the event of his return to face charges in the UK. He recently defended members of the Real IRA Active Service Unit who were sent to London on a bombing campaign designed to disrupt the peace process. His sanction busting cases cover the illegal export of arms and weapons-making equipment, and clients include major foreign defence corporations.

Major cases include Matrix Churchill and Ordtech.

Clare Montgomery QC

Montgomery is a specialist in criminal law. The press has recently shown an interest in her over her representation of General Pinochet and her involvement in serious fraud cases including Guinness, Brent Walker and Maxwell.

She was called to the bar in 1980, took silk in 1996, and joins Matrix from top criminal set 3 Raymond Buildings.

She has experience in extradition, representing both governments and individuals.

Her particular expertise is in white collar crime and administrative law, and she was recently involved in a major insurance fraud case in Bermuda.

Montgomery is widely admired for her work with Pinochet and colleagues at the bar speak highly of her. Observers say she is a natural leader and will create an excellent two-tier criminal team alongside top junior Tim Owen, who joins Matrix from Doughty Street Chambers.

One insider says: 'She is one of the very bright stars at the criminal bar and a lot of the large London law firms use her. She is busy all year round. It's hard to know what the move is going to achieve for her.'

David Bean QC

Bean practises in employment and discrimination law, education and other public law and commercial disputes.

He was called to the bar in 1976 and took silk in 1997. He joins Matrix from 4-5 Gray's Inn Square.

His clients include several major employers and trade unions. One of his most significant cases, London Underground v Edwards, concerned indirect sex discrimination. Edwards was a train driver who claimed she suffered discrimination due to a shift change which meant she could no longer work and care for her son. London Underground offered an undisclosed sum to settle the case.

Bean was one of three members of the Premier League Managers' Tribunal on Dalglish v Newcastle Football Club last autumn. He has been a recorder since 1996 in the county courts and Crown Court.

He is chairman of the Employment Law Bar Association and is an active member of the Society of Labour Lawyers. One leading employment silk says: 'He is very bright and very well regarded in the marketplace.'