You are approaching the last quarter of your financial year end and going into what could be the toughest trading year for decades. How has business been and what are your thoughts on the year ahead?
At the present time our receipts are over 20% up on last year—we’re happy with that. We’ve had two new members join, as well as three joining at the conclusion of their pupillages, so the growth has been organic. This has also been achieved without a chief executive officer (CEO) for most of this period. The primary reason for our growth, I believe, is that in most fields the work is consolidating. Five to 10 years ago, most chambers did some personal injury (PI) work. Today, the work available probably hasn’t increased, but clients are sending it to a smaller group of chambers. As a result, we continue to attract PI barristers from other sets where PI is declining, and these new members bring clients with them. As to the year ahead, we have the same concerns as everyone. It would foolish to view the future as optimistically as we did only a year ago. This year there are bound to be some clients who will look at the price, and not the quality, of the service provided.
Your CEO left in the middle of last year and, having finally completed his six-month notice period, your new CEO starts this month. What was the appeal in bringing on board a former partner and current CEO of one of chambers’ clients?
The problem with a CEO in chambers is that it takes a long time for them to become familiar with the work barristers do and the way they operate. Here there are 65 different views on any proposal, so you can’t dictate the direction to take in the same way you can in a company. Being a CEO is a more difficult job than many think. Most have a clerking or general commercial background, but few candidates had direct experience in the field in which we practise. Jason Rowley was managing partner of a law firm and what attracted us, apart from his personal qualities, was that he has direct experience of the type of work we do. Vizards Wyeth is a defendant firm and the insurer clients we deal with are also dealt with by Jason, so he understands them. It means there’s no learning curve.
What have been recent key areas of focus for your chambers?
We have been upgrading our entire service. We’ve taken over four large suites in Mitre Court and moved a number of barristers there. This has freed up space for new members in the main building. Chambers is expanding and I expect that to continue. We’re moving to four pupils next year, as opposed to three last year. I anticipate that we will continue to recruit established practitioners from other chambers. We are also putting in a mediation suite at Mitre Court (for up to five parties), where previously we made do with conference rooms in our main building. We’ve always done quite a bit of mediation—all the QCs are qualified mediators. Clients are demanding mediation more often so we’re responding to our client’s expectations. It also means we can offer something other chambers may not have.
If a barrister was interested in joining your set, what would you look for from them and what could they expect in return?
I am very impressed by the quality of the younger barristers in chambers. They are all gifted academically and dedicated to their work. Last year, we had 400 applicants for three pupillage places so we are able to choose who we want. We have never needed to advertise for established practitioners. I hope anyone joining us will consider that we are more progressive than other chambers.
What impact do you envisage the Legal Services Act will have on your business?
I suspect that this is going to prove to be nothing but hype. What we do will depend on what we’re allowed to do. If we’re allowed to employ barristers we will probably do that as we have a huge volume of smaller claims from our established clients, which it is very difficult for us to cover without employing additional barristers at that level. It will also allow us to offer the national service clients are now looking for and which we have difficulty with when the claim values are modest.
What, in your view, is the key challenge facing chambers in the longer term?
The Bar is more professional than it used to be 25 years ago—then there were many smaller sets and they were less well organised. There are now some very large sets but they seem to me to be a poor business model. Where are the synergies in such a set? They try to do everything. I can see the synergies between employment and some regulatory work or between PI, clinical negligence and employment—indeed these are synergies we are seeking to develop—but for the “super-sets”, what is the synergy between PI and crime, save for some very modest cost savings? If our larger clients want us to cover more nationally, we will have to create a branch in the South West, probably in Bristol. It is more difficult to find a single location in the Midlands to base a set. You need to have professional managers in a large set and those that don’t are likely to fail.
Andrew Hogarth QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Anil Shah, LPA Legal