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UK Bar In Brief

The UK bar has continued to experience significant pressures in the last 12 months, most notably illustrated by the collapse and dissolution of 11 Stone Buildings, which had operated for more than 40 successful years. As a provider of services to international companies, global economic pressures are weighing heavily on the commercial bar. While clients look to reduce their legal costs, there is increasing competition facing chambers not just from within the bar but also from solicitors and other jurisdictions.

Price Competition

“Price competition” was consistently cited as a major trend during our research, and is seen as one of biggest challenge currently facing the bar. Due to the tougher global economic conditions facing businesses today, clients and solicitors are not prepared to pay high fees for barristers where they aren’t necessary, especially with the advancement of the alternative dispute resolution methods of arbitration and mediation. Consequently chambers have found themselves under significant pressure to provide cheaper services to maintain their share of the market. As one barrister put it, “Dispute resolution has been commoditised.”

The employment sector has especially felt the impact of these tough economic conditions, exacerbated by the introduction of tribunal fees, with a resulting drop of around 70 per cent in the number of applications to the employment tribunal being made. As a result, diversification into other sectors by practitioners has increased across the industry sectors. Indeed, barristers spoke of the ways in which specialisation, bringing a higher level of expertise and technical ability into a field, had always been favoured as a means of attracting new business. Yet there is now a danger of over-specialisation in the current climate; clients and solicitors would like “the cheapest pony to do all their tricks”. This can mean that having a too tightly delineated focus cuts some practitioners off from wider work in a certain field.

This cost consciousness has also resulted in an increasing number of junior barristers in chambers, in part as there is a higher demand from clients for using junior barristers as a means of reducing their own expenses. There is also a significant number of senior junior barristers who have decided not to take silk when their predecessors did, in an effort to ensure that they do not then lose a share of their current work to other juniors. 

Chambers are indeed growing in an effort to respond to the tougher economic climate. It is significant that despite the dissolution of 11 Stone Buildings, all of its former members have joined other sets, highlighting the current trend for consolidation and lateral hires in the market. This allows chambers to gain the best talent in the field and to expand the reach of their services and industry sectors, in an effort to obtain a wider share of the market. Notable examples included 20 Essex Street which has expanded the shipping work which it have been traditionally known for, to provide a full service to large commercial clients in big-ticket litigations. Similarly Erskine Chambers has developed into “a credible alternative for insolvency work” to South Square. They have become a set “which can work on all stages of a company’s life cycle: throughout its solvent life, as well as its dissolution and insolvency.” This has led to more choice in the market for clients, and chambers have become more able to provide high-quality services for areas of the market which are generating work, if and when other areas experience a downturn.  

The increasing demand for fixed fees from clients is also adding economic pressure to chambers. Yet practitioners also spoke of a corresponding upsurge in the use of sophisticated technology, now widely available, to facilitate the provision of high-quality legal services: for example, using the telephone and Skype, among others, to complete mediation for large international clients without having to travel to their offices. While this does slightly signal a move away from litigation and the high fees associated with it, it also enables the completion of a “large amount of mediation, international or otherwise, throughout the year” and barristers who also practice as mediators have found a broadening channel of demand for mediation services now available worldwide.

The Solicitor–Barrister Relationship: A Changed Culture 

A further challenge to the bar has been seen from solicitors, some of whom, under their own economic pressures, “have taken the term ‘full-service firm’ a step further” by offering advocacy services too. The recent rise in the number of solicitor-advocates has threatened to take away some of the work traditionally done by barristers. However there have been mixed reports of the success of these endeavours, due to the lack of specialised training and expertise which barristers are able to bring to their advocacy. Many barristers spoke of the distinct split between the professions as a necessity and predicted it to continue long into the future, asserting that “the independent commercial bar is not going anywhere”.

It was also noted that solicitors are “becoming more assertive and selective than they used to be” when choosing a barristerwith some practitioners speaking of effectively being interviewed for cases by certain firms. All this reflects a change in the general culture existing between firms and chambers, as sets are finding themselves less able to rely on the reputation of a few practitioners and required to compete more for work.

There has also been a recent surge in the amount of direct access work for barristers, with clients “cutting out the middle man” and approaching barristers directly. This is becoming particularly common with the larger, sophisticated clients who have their own experienced and knowledgeable in-house legal teams, and who therefore don’t need to approach a private law firm as well. It can therefore be especially important and fruitful for barristers to cultivate and prioritise good relationships with both current and potential clients, “built on respect and crucially, trust”.

The Growth of Singapore

Some practitioners spoke of the growth of Singapore into a “legal hub” as a matter of some concern to the UK bar, attracting business away from London by providing “a cheaper and more convenient alternative” for dispute resolution. Yet while “Singapore is pitching to be important”, practitioners also opined that “on the whole Singapore will not be successful in supplanting London.” Though “some disputes are less likely to come to London then they were 10 years ago”, many barristers are already regularly travelling to Singapore to complete work and several chambers, such as 20 Essex Street and Stone Chambers, have opened full-time offices there. Instead Singapore is actually providing a “wonderful opportunity” for barristers to have increased access to intra-Asian work. One practitioner described how “Singapore is basically being run out of London”, and is in fact “a pond which will produce a significant catch” if barristers are open to taking advantage of the opportunity.

Brand Recognition and Marketing

As competition for work becomes more intense, there has been a corresponding increase in focus on marketing and brand recognition by chambers to harness these valuable resources to their advantage. Several chambers have created specific roles which help to ensure the promotion of the set and maintain close client relationships. Indeed, members of our team met with James Huckle, the recently appointed director of strategic development at 20 Essex Street, and also Caroline Hughes, client services consultant at Erskine Chambers. In a similar vein, South Square were keen to promote their quarterly review, the South Square Digest, produced as a review of the cases, judgments, news and articles covering their practice areas. Since its origins this publication has grown from a newsletter into a full-blown glossy magazine, reflecting the increased drive to establish a marketplace reputation and for chambers to ensure the international visibility of their specific work. This particular newsletter has a circulation of more than 3,000 readers, illustrating too the demand by clients and solicitors to be aware of chambers’ work, and therefore how chambers will be suited to their own legal needs.

Whilst the UK Bar is experiencing significant challenges, it is also taking advantage of the opportunities available. Significantly, the UK Bar “will always stand on the quality of its expertise and service provided to clients”, and London is a particularly good location for attracting a real depth and breadth of international work. As one barrister put it, “Those who are good will always find work.” Therefore, as long as chambers continue to attract the brightest and the best practitioners in the industry, and maintain strong client relationships, the UK bar will emerge from its present challenges relatively unscathed.  

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Analysis: UK Bar

UK Bar: Arbitration 2016

This year 68 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Aviation & Travel 2016

This year 32 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Banking & Finance 2016

This year 77 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Civil Fraud 2016

This year 70 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Company & Partnership 2016

This year 29 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Competition 2016

This year 38 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Criminal Fraud 2016

This year 45 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Employment 2016

This year 75 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Energy & Natural Resources 2016

This year 34 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Environment 2016

This year 33 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Government Contracts 2016

This year 24 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Insurance & Reinsurance 2016

This year 69 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Intellectual Property 2016

This year 30 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: International Trade & Commodities 2016

This year 70 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Investigations 2016

This year 23 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Labour & Employment 2016

This year 75 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Media & Entertainment 2016

This year 45 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Mediation Analysis 2016

This year 19 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Private Client 2016

This year 56 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Professional Negligence 2016

This year 22 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Real Estate 2016

This year 51 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Restructuring & Insolvency 2016

This year 59 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Sports 2016

This year 23 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Sports Review 2016

Daniel Saoul

Sports Law in 2016 – Developments and Perspectives 

UK Bar: Tax 2016

This year 23 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

UK Bar: Telecommunications 2016

This year 29 practitioners have been identified by our research as the leaders in the field.

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Firm Profiles: UK Bar

20 Essex Street

20 Essex Street is a highly reputable commercial law set with one of the very best international disputes practices at the bar. Members are applauded for their skills in arbitrations, appearing as counsel or arbitrator in some of the most significant commercial disputes across the world. In particular, the set excels in international trade and commodities disputes, often appearing in trade arbitral panels. Members of 20 Essex Street are also widely consulted for their expertise in insolvency and restructuring matters, banking and finance, and insurance and reinsurance disputes, often with an international dimension. 

3 Verulam Buildings

3 Verulam Buildings has established itself as a leading commercial set. One of the foremost banking and finance sets, 3VB achieves its strongest showing in our corresponding chapter with 15 listings, 12 of whom are silks.

7 King’s Bench Walk

7 King’s Bench Walk is one of the leading commercial sets in the UK, with “renowned expertise” in the areas of insurance and reinsurance, professional negligence, international trade, energy and natural resources and commodities. The set prides itself on its forward-thinking, flexible and commercial approach to dealing with issues brought to them by solicitors or commercial clients. This year, 36 of its leading barristers are recognised for their impressive work.

Blackstone Chambers

Blackstone is notable for both its large membership and its leading position across a number of distinct areas in our research. The set has a longstanding tradition of excellence in commercial and public law, as well as flourishing practices in competition law and employment law. With this expertise on offer, Blackstone is most conspicuously a leading set in the sports, media and entertainment, and telecommunication sectors. Many of the most distinguished and accomplished silks at the bar are door tenants, along with some of the most promising juniors, who regularly rank among the most highly regarded in their areas of practice. 

Brick Court Chambers

Since it was founded in 1921, Brick Court Chambers has cemented itself as one of the leading sets of barristers in the UK with 85 full-time members, 38 of whom are QCs. The set prides itself on its strong reputation in both advisory and advocacy work, as well as its ability to provide clients with accessible and user-friendly services. It boasts particular expertise in the fields of commercial, EU/competition and public law, and strives to deliver services to clients of the highest quality. 51 of its leading barristers are recognised this year for their impressive work.

Essex Court Chambers

Since its establishment in 1961, Essex Court Chambers has built a “leading reputation” for commercial, international and European law, and boasts some of the “leading names at the bar today”. This year it receives 55 inclusions across eight practice areas.

Fountain Court

Set in the iconic location of Fountain Court in the Middle Temple, the chambers has a distinguished reputation for being a set of practitioners that excel in multiple practice areas. It is most “eminent” in banking and finance and is particularly known for being a favourite among magic circle law firms. It is represented in this edition through 45 listings in seven practice areas.

Keating Chambers

Keating Chambers combines a strong tradition of excellence with “innovative commercially focused thinking”, to make it a leading set amongst the UK bar, with a particularly outstanding showing in our construction research. 

Matrix Chambers

Matrix Chambers “delivers excellence in all areas” to clients by building on its core values, which  include among others, a commitment to providing quality services, independent practitioners, innovation, and equal opportunities. 

Monckton Chambers

Monckton Chambers traces its roots back to the 1930s, but it was a decision made by its members in the 1970s, to focus on the law of the European Economic Community, that has led to its modern-day success as one of the stand out chambers for EU and competition law. 

One Essex Court

One Essex Court is a leading set with a specialism in commercial disputes and an “impressive” international reputation. The firm performs particularly well across our research in banking and finance, arbitration, civil fraud and energy and natural resources. This year the set receives 31 recommendations across a total of 8 practice areas.

South Square

South Square continues to lead the way for its work in insolvency and restructuring. On top of this, the internationally successful set also stands out in the area of banking and finance, and has 32 listings in our editions.

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