The bigger the better

The urge to merge has not yet abated, with Leeds and Lincoln's Inn being the most recent locations for new super sets to emerge. Up in the wild North, 10 Park Square – which first courted 30 Park Square – finally found its Prince Charming in 9 Woodhouse Square, creating Zenith Chambers, the largest set in Leeds. Assistant practice director of the new set Samantha Ashford says that, with 58 barristers, the set can now really compete with the rest of the local bar and beyond.

"The way for common law sets to be able to compete in the future is simply to get bigger, and the simplest way to do that is to merge," says Ashford. Still working from two sites, Zenith Chambers' clerks will be working from one location as of 1 May, with the barristers following soon after. Explaining the move, Ashford, former senior clerk at 9 Woodhouse Square, says: "We don't know what the future holds. With all the changes, such as legal aid and the squeeze on fees, it's better to be in a large set rather than a tiny one. If you're in a small set and a couple of people decide to give up the bar then it's more of a problem."

While she accepts that it would be "very idealistic to think that everyone in both sets was going to get on", Ashford says that the merger is a natural choice, with many friendships throughout the ranks of the two sets. "Considering that we only started talks in September, it's all gone very well. Number 10 is quite similar to us – there's some natural fits."

A major driver to the merger is to gain BarMark and Investors in People accreditation in order to present a more up-to-date face to its clients. Ashford says: "We've got to change our way of doing things. We've got to become more businesslike."

The move is certainly in line with developments in other regional centres. Birmingham, for example, houses the largest set in the country, St Philip's Chambers, created in 1998 through the merger of Priory Chambers and 7 Fountain Court. In Liverpool, Martin's Building and The Corn Exchange joined forces to create 7 Harrington Street Chambers, a 65-tenant set, while in Cardiff, negotiations are continuing between 9 and 30 Park Place which, if successful, will create the largest set in the principality, housing 75 tenants.

Down in Lincoln's Inn, the twinning of 7 Stone Buildings and 13 Old Square to create Maitland Chambers, which opened in January, will create the powerful Lincoln's Inn triptych of Wilberforce Chambers, Maitland Cambers and Serle Court, all with a chancery core. The latter set was formed at the end of 1999 when 13 Old Square, whose head of chambers Lord Neill of Bladen QC is now head of the merged set, married with Serle Court. According to Maitland Chambers chief executive Peter Bennett, the powerful chancery trio put smaller sets at a disadvantage. "Once you've got three larger sets, it puts pressure on the smaller ones," he says. "Smaller sets are talking to each other and the brightest people in those sets will be thinking that they have to look after their futures."

But despite chambers presenting such an impenetrable wall of establishment power to the outside world, it is interesting to see just how quickly things can fall apart as soon as some members start to feel threatened. Several sets have dissolved during the past few years, for example the late George Carman QC's former set New Square Chambers. As one commentator puts it: "I think that what destabilised them was entering into merger discussions. Some people didn't like other people in the set they were going for. Once the exodus starts, the best people think, 'I can't have my career in this sinking ship', then they go off somewhere else and the whole thing falls apart."

Another famous merger to explode was that of 4-5 Gray's Inn Square and Monckton Chambers. Although the two sets announced their merger into Bentham Chambers in March last year, the whole shooting match turned into a bloodbath three months later, with barristers and clerks leaving in droves. A team of five EU practitioners fled in horror from 4-5 Gray's Inn and tried to get into Brick Court Chambers. Only two – Marie Demetriou and Martin Chamberlain – made it in, with the others accepting tenancies at 11 King's Bench Walk, Lord Irvine's former set. Despite the merger falling apart, 4-5 Gray's Inn's chief executive Tony Wells unsurprisingly left the set and the profession after being snubbed for the top job at Bentham.

Playing down the importance of the fashion for mergers, Brick Court's senior clerk Ian Moyler says: "The number of mergers is up, but there's always been mergers. It's just that there is a greater opportunity for publicity now."

It is perhaps due to its sheer size that 4-5 Gray's Inn survived the whole mess, its top-rated planning team remaining in place as evidence. In its turn, Monckton Chambers lost three valuable commercial specialists, although two of these went to the bench. The set was then joined by former attorney general Nicholas Lyell QC, who defected from Brick Court Chambers.

But in the world of mergers, all is not chaos and despair. Two sets which seem to have survived the change are Two Crown Office Row and One Paper Buildings, both leading insurance and professional negligence sets, which formed Crown Office Chambers in April 2000. Christopher Purchas QC, joint head of chambers with Michael Spencer QC, says that both sets knew they had to increase their capabilities with greater numbers, and while both had other suitors, the merger has been successful thanks mainly to a good cultural fit.

Purchas says: "It's gone remarkably well and put us in a pretty strong position. We're doing more work and our turnover has gone up. We've attracted more work from insurers who are looking for larger sets of chambers. We're getting this work because we're able to provide the service they're looking for, and because we're larger and have more people who specialise in it."

But getting the work is not all plain sailing. The insurers are always on the lookout for cost savings and always try to strike a hard bargain, according to Purchas. They look for guaranteed returns on procedural factors, such as time limits for receiving papers and fee structures. "There are all sorts of penalties if you don't keep to targets," says Purchas. But he feels that this discipline is a good influence on the barristers. "Ideally, it's better to have everyone working 100 per cent of the time than to have two stars who are extremely overworked with everyone looking on in admiration," he says.

Looking to the future, Purchas says: "There's going to be fewer sets and they're going to be larger. We're obviously trying to keep our practice within in five or six areas, which I think is sensible, but at the same time I don't think we want to put all our eggs in one basket."

While it is crucial that the work, culture and talent of two merging sets are all of commensurate value, what seems to make these liaisons work is pre-existing friendships between parties, as between Crown Office Chambers' heads Purchas and Spencer. This is not necessarily borne of jolly jaunts down at the gentlemen's club or on the golf course. Bennett at Maitland Chambers says: "The reason they're friends is that they're bumping into one another in court over long periods, working on similar cases. Asking someone to go into a merger with someone they consider professionally inferior is asking a lot. They might consider that merging with a [particular set of] chambers will put their opportunity for getting silk back by five years."

Lateral movement at the bar has receded thanks to a generally busy start to 2001. But at the Chancery Bar expansionist grumblings are still being heard. The breaking down of the boundaries between commercial and chancery work, coupled with the strong reputation of the Chancery Division of the High Court, has led to a more assertive Chancery Bar. Merging is one option to make them more competitive with their traditionally larger commercial rivals.

Wilberforce Chambers has been recruiting steadily, including the acquisition of Michael Bloch QC and Terence Mowschenson QC from magic circle commercial set One Essex Court, while Serle Court, Maitland Chambers and now New Square Chambers are the products of recent mergers. But if such sets are ever hoping to challenge the bar's established commercial elite, the momentum must be maintained.

"There are things afoot," says Bennett. "I'm a great believer that chambers are going either up or down. If you're coasting you're actually going down – you just haven't realised it yet." n