Law: An endangered species takes steps to save itself: Barristers are at last adapting their practices in a case of sink or swim, says Neasa MacErlean

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The Independent Online
THE BAR may have seen its finest year. In 1992 there were 7,300 barristers in private practice. But the Bar Council is bracing itself for a substantial scaling down in the number of its members. Some commentators, including the management consultants Hodgart Temporal, believe that by the end of the decade there may be only enough work to sustain half the barristers now in practice.

As in other business sectors, the recession could exert its wasting effect on the Bar. But even without the recession, the Bar might be under severe pressure. Cuts in legal aid eligibility and the freezing of legal aid rates, the extension of solicitors' advocacy rights and the growth in popularity of Alternative Dispute Resolution may combine to starve 3,000 to 4,000 barristers out of practice.

Until now, the Bar Council has been able to predict fairly accurately the future size of the Bar. Calculations were made using a formula based on the number of judge-sitting days, but this year the formula has been thrown away.

'Nobody knows what is going to happen - certainly not the Government,' says Martin Bowley QC, treasurer of the Bar Council. 'This affects everything the Bar is doing. It raises the whole question of accommodation - whether the Inns have enough, too little or too much. It affects recruitment - whether the Bar in the future is going to remain as attractive to law graduates.'

In the Bar Council's view, one of the largest uncertainties is the number of people who will be granted rights of audience in the higher courts. Other factors, such as the extent to which the Crown Prosecution Service would use private solicitors, could also have a substantial impact. In Mr Bowley's view, 'the worst of all scenarios' could mean a significant decline in the size of the independent Bar.

But many barristers have begun to adapt their practices to the changing world. Two years ago, a strategy report published by the Bar Council urged practitioners, among other moves, to achieve economies of scale by working in larger sets. Barristers took the advice to heart. London sets have an average of 25 tenants, compared with the average 17-tenant set two years ago.

Few other sectors of the business community are changing so fast. The set at 29 Bedford Row, for example, believes that leaving the Inns of Court was one of its greatest strategic decisions. Until it moved a year ago, it could not recruit new tenants or specialists, nor could it keep on the pupils in whom it had invested six months' training. When the Bar Council dropped its restrictions on practising outside the Inns in late 1989, the Bedford Row set was one of the first to make the most of the new freedom.

In the past 12 months, the set has grown from 25 to 34 tenants. 'There is an advantage in having a number of barristers who can cover for each other,' says Peter Ralls, one of the initiators of the move. 'Clients want to know that they have a choice. They like to have several people of the same level of seniority that they are happy to use.'

The set has also made concessions to comfort in its new premises that could not have been made in its old surroundings. Whereas the leitmotif of many Inns sets is physical discomfort, 29 Bedford Row now has a bar, a reception area larger than a box and a spacious library.

However, this set is not alone in its voyage into the 20th century. Most sets now have marketing brochures, but a handful have become adventurous in other ways. For instance, Exchange Chambers in Liverpool has set up an arbitration suite, large enough to accommodate 150 people.

The Bedford Row set believes the Bar can guarantee its survival only by keeping up with the increasingly popular alternatives to litigation, such as arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution. It has also crossed the Rubicon by switching from the traditional emphasis on the individual to a team view. It describes its head of chambers as chairman, and has appointed two barristers to head its civil and criminal departments.

Hodgart Temporal has advised a long list of clients both in industry and the professions, but the consultant David Temporal says the most unusual organisation he has seen is the barristers' set.

Mr Temporal thinks the Bar must aim to achieve a balance of independence and interdependence. 'This will require a lot of skill to achieve, but not the traditional skills of control and power.' In many ways, barristers will be at an advantage because they have not been in the business of managing people using traditional methods and thus are not hidebound.

On the other hand, he believes some barristers will be hampered as managers by the same qualities that brought them professional success. 'Traditional barristers' skills tend to lead to confrontation and postition-taking,' Mr Temporal says. 'Barristers can also be emotionally childlike.'

He maintains they manifest extremes, often being egotistic and also highly insecure. 'They tend not to trust anybody and to think that others are earning more money.'

Many barristers are now embarking on their last years of success. In the tax field, for example, the leading QCs are said to earn pounds 500,000 a year. But when they retire, there may be no successors. Junior barristers are finding that their work is being clawed away by solicitors.

This year will be a crucial one for the Bar. By the end of 1993, solicitors are expected to have been granted rights of audience in the higher courts. The Bar may have to react dramatically if it is to avoid the thin line between prosperity and extinction.

(Photograph omitted)