Bar-room blitz

The ‘thinking commercially’ mantra has sparked some major changes at the bar

While the bar is yet to witness the same state of rapid consolidation as the solicitor profession, the prospect of increased competition and falling rates is starting to seep in, forcing barristers to think about how they gain a commercial foothold in the post-recession gloom.

An economic downturn often means a litigation upturn, but while the number of disputes is rising, the explosion of big-money cases that many predicted would drive up rates at the bar has failed to emerge.

Clients on a budget for this discretionary spend are shopping around and demanding more for their money. Put simply, they want lawyers that think commercially – and this extends to counsel.

Some might suggest that the bar’s response to commerciality has been lacklustre, but that is not the case for all chambers.

Take 39 Essex Street, for instance. Driven forward by chief executive David Barnes, the set is at the forefront of developing joined relationships with solicitors to get those all-important bulk instructions.

At the same time it has maintained an emphasis on top-level instructions, perhaps not always the most lucrative cases but certainly some of the most high-profile – for example, head of chambers Robert Jay QC was adviser to the Leveson Inquiry.

Earlier this month the set moved to capitalise on this by revealing it was at an advanced stage of talks with 4-5 Gray’s Inn, with around 30 members looking to join the set.

This has been received as something of a gift for 4-5 Gray’s Inn’s rivals. Following the appointment of Holly Gavaghan as chief executive in June and two new heads of chambers, David Holgate QC and Tim Mould QC, Landmark Chambers has been looking for an opportunity to grow and so far has taken three 4-5 Gray’s Inn silks.

Likewise, 11KBW is on a mission to add numbers to boost revenue and has recently added four junior members, all from 4-5 Gray’s Inn.

Many chambers are still looking for their point of commerciality and this can only be led by the barristers themselves. All eyes will be on 39 Essex Street over the next 12 months to see whether there really is safety in numbers.