Barristers `cost half as much' as rival solicitors

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BARRISTERS WILL attempt to shed their "fat cat" image tomorrow when they publish figures which show that they cost the public half as much as solicitors.

The report, entitled "The Economic Case for the Bar", represents the latest round in an increasingly bitter "price war" which barristers and solicitors have been fighting to show who can claim to be the least expensive.

The study will show that junior barristers are cheaper than solicitors. The hourly rate for a commercial barrister with up to five years' experience is pounds 75, compared with around pounds 135 for a solicitor of similar standing. It will argue that solicitors have higher overheads and therefore have to recoup their costs with more expensive fees.

While the findings will help to remove the myth that barristers are always more expensive than solicitors, it points out that the cost to the client of a barrister whose average age is just 24 is around pounds 750 a day. By the time barristers have accumulated 10 years' experience, the gap between the two rates will have narrowed to just pounds 5 an hour - pounds 175 for barristers and pounds 180 for senior solicitors. For a 10-hour working day, often charged by barristers, clients will have to pay up to pounds 2,000 for whichever branch of the legal profession they choose to instruct.

Competition between barristers and solicitors has become more intense since the rules changed to allow solicitors to practise in higher courts. A number of the larger solicitors' firms in the City have established in-house advocacy units to support their clients in court. These are helping to train highly skilled solicitor-advocates who can take on barristers in the most lucrative courts of the chancery and commercial divisions.

Last month, the Law Society, which represents solicitors, raised the tempo in its campaign to highlight the huge fees paid to the top QCs by calling for leading barristers to have their pay pegged to doctors' rates.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has also said he wanted to bear down on the fees charged by lawyers, both barristers and solicitors, who draw their earnings from the public purse. Last year, he published the names of the highest earning barristers in what many regarded as a "naming and shaming" exercise.

But tomorrow's report is not expected to refer to those individual barristers whom the Lord Chancellor said grossed between pounds 300,000 and pounds 400,000 for legal aid work. Nor will it acknowledge the existence of what Chambers, the legal publishers, described as a "million-a-year club" of the highest- earning barristers. Chambers has named 20 silks who have gained entry to the club. Among the names were Jonathan Sumption QC, Jules Sher QC, Gordon Pollock QC, David Goldberg QC, Michael Flesch QC and Elizabeth Gloster QC, the only woman among the elite.

This year the Bar Council has attempted to come clean about the high pay of some barristers, publishing research which showed that the average annual earnings of a QC was pounds 266,000. But at the lower end of the scale it found that some junior barristers, mostly doing criminal work, earned little more than pounds 17,000 a year. The report also showed that cash-flow was a problem for self-employed barristers who have to wait many months before they get paid by the Legal Aid Board and solicitors.

One senior barrister said: "I know a couple who have actually gone out of business recently. If you check the bankruptcy lists you will see names of barristers from the Temple."

According to Chambers: "The lot of the junior, generally, has become far less certain. Quite apart from the fact that silks are often doing without them in cases across the spectrum, the average remuneration for juniors of varying experience has declined over the past 12 months."