A change of order at the Bar

Marketing concepts, brand development, headhunting: increased competition and changing practices mean the Bar is having to wake up to the 21st century
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The Independent Online

Some may think that the Bar, still in wigs and gowns, is dragging itself into the 20th century, while the other side of the profession, the solicitors, are "yetis" (young, entrepreneurial and technically minded), who are embracing the 21st century and jumping on the dot.com spacewagon.

One modern barrister who has embraced the media in the launch of his new chambers is Ronald Thwaites QC, who recently invited applications from "dedicated and determined members of the Bar" who practise in the areas such as defamation and civil actions against the police, including "high-profile work of all kinds".

It is a long way from the secret soundings of the Lord Chancellor's Department which determines who will be a Queen's Counsel. The latest QCs were announced just before Easter and officially confirmed last week.

Mr Thwaites admits that his move is not quite as headline-worthy as the news that the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth QC, has joined a new set, Matrix Chambers, which opened its doors early this month. Matrix Chambers caused a stir when it was leaked that a new chambers was being set up with many of the leading and most high-profile barristers in the area of human rights - who had all been headhunted. There was certainly no advertising.

Mr Thwaites says he is not copying Matrix. "After 29 years at the Bar, I had decided that it was time for a change - I had already been toying with the idea of setting up a new chambers for about a year - so it was before Matrix, and this new set is not in that mould," he said.

About his current set at 10 King's Bench Walk, he says: "There was no acrimonious break-up and no rivalry with the old set and no fall-out, so there is no story there. The set was and is known mainly as a criminal and general common law set. I am now identified more on the civil side, so there is a gap in the market, which the new set is aiming to fill."

And Mr Thwaites is adopting a more enlightened marketing style. He says the new set will be named after the building, which they are in the process of acquiring: "It is all about perception - and for this new chambers, it is a case of developing a brand and wanting and attracting others to join and strengthen that brand."

In fact, the decision to move is essentially a commercial one. "With the pressure from Government on funding [in particular in the areas of criminal and family law - areas which his current set specialises in], you have to adapt to survive, and the Bar is likely to go back to being half the size it is now - of almost 10,000 barristers."

Mark Green is a director in the professional practices group at accountants BDO Stoy Hayward, which publishes an annual survey of barristers. For 1999, it estimated that the total annual income of the Bar is in the region of £1.2 to 1.4bn.

He says that with just over 30 per cent of barristers' income coming from public funds - such as the Legal Aid Board, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service - and more recently, with the introduction of the Community Legal Service and changes in Government funding in areas such as crime, family and personal injury, more barristers will move away from that type of work.

The survey also found that although barristers are outnumbered by solicitors by almost 10 to one, the number of barristers is growing slightly more quickly at an average rate of 5 per cent a year compared with 4 per cent for solicitors.

That means that there is more competition for the work, including from solicitor-advocates. And to be competitive, barristers are now more mobile than they have ever been. "People at the Bar are advertising more and more now, and chambers are no longer ashamed of it," says Mr Green, who advised Matrix Chambers when it was setting up. He says that it is rare, but not unusual, for an individual to advertise for others to join him on the strength of his own reputation.

It is unlikely that solicitors and clients - and other barristers - will not have heard of Mr Thwaites, who has been involved in high-profile criminal cases.

He acted for the defendant Tony Diedrick in the Joan Francisco murder case, and one of his most recent defamation cases was against the doyen of libel barristers, George Carman QC, in a matter concerning the directors of Derby County Football Club and the alleged circulation of poison-pen letters.

Mr Thwaites says of his switch to defamation and civil practice: "One advantage is that the libel Bar is small and you can get a foothold." Although he may be following Mr Carman's path by switching to libel, the path of high-profile barristers leaving their sets has left problems in their wake.

Mr Carman's former 26-strong set of chambers was "amicably" dissolved on 20 April after a number of the barristers moved to specialist sets or to join other specialist teams, and he moved into 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, the set that Cherie Booth QC was in before joining Matrix.

"Of course I feel sad," he says about the end of the set which he founded in 1981. "But the Bar is going through enormous changes. Some are a little uncertain as to where their future lies."

And when Patricia Scotland QC was elevated to the House of Lords as Baroness Scotland of Asthal, she allowed the chambers she had headed, 1 Gray's Inn Square, to retain her name. But the set disbanded and many of the barristers joined another set in Gray's Inn Square.

Baroness Scotland says she ceased practising when she was made a minister, but agreed to allow the chambers to stay in her name and to remain its official head on the understanding that her name be removed from bank accounts and from the lease and that she would not be responsible for chambers business.

Barrister Helen Morgan, who was on the practice's management committee and is now at Renaissance Chambers, says. "Patricia was a titular head of chambers, and the set was run by the management committee. I don't believe her absence made a difference. The chambers was breaking up because specialists were moving elsewhere."

In some ways, moving to join a specialist set is a back-to-basics move. Mr Thwaites says his new set will initially number about 20, comprising of seven or eight barristers who will leave his current set with him and join barristers from other sets. "It will not be a mega-set, but a group of like-minded people. There are a lot of juniors who do civil work, but the crunch point is how they perform in court - I think we can provide robust advocates for solicitors who are becoming much more discerning and demanding. In fact, some solicitors can do almost everything that a barrister can do."

He warns: "One of the mistakes that barristers make is to think that they can sit and wait for briefs to fall off the end of the conveyor belt, but that conveyor belt may soon stop."