How is chambers faring in the current recession particularly real estate in which you are most prominent?
It would be wrong for me to say that this year is proving anything other than challenging. Our fiscal year which ended 31 March 2009 was our best year ever but this was largely due to work booked pre-recession. We saw the first real effects of the recession from January this year, but we are still ahead of where we thought we might be which is quite reassuring. From the research we’ve been doing we can see new things beginning to come through and expect to return to normal activity in Q3/Q4. Thankfully not all aspects are affected in the same way. Our public and environmental law has remained resilient which has helped counter balance weaknesses in other areas.
Landmark Chambers is consistently seen as the no 1 planning set…what has enabled your chambers to retain this status?
Since the merger seven years ago we have been no 1. It’s about quality and the market recognises that. But we have also established a very strong brand on the back of having the best performers in the business and have done a lot in the last few years to re-enforce this through modern marketing techniques and growing the related areas such as environment, property and public law.
You are so far ahead of the competition, where does chambers go from here?
There is always a danger of complacency and it’s important to guard against it. Due to the nature of the independent Bar barristers are only as good as their last piece of work so that tends to keep them very focussed on always doing a first class job. Of course we would like to remain as the country’s leading planning/environment chambers but the nature of the work is changing due to legislative changes so we have to find new sources of work which are connected to what we already do but which perhaps open up new ways or new areas of providing that same advice and advocacy.
There has been lots of discussion around the legal services reform and changing landscape…how do you perceive the future of your chambers?
I think there will always be a need for an independent expert legal adviser particularly in specialist areas like ours. The drive towards ABS I believe is most likely to come from bulk business in the crime, family, PI and employment fields. The work we do doesn’t really lend itself to a MDP or ABS approach. I can’t see how external funders will be attracted and obtain a return on their investment. What’s in it for them? There is huge potential in the market for a quality brand (AA, Tesco etc) generating or growing the market. In my view those quality brands will then either act as a channel to panel law firms or create an ABS to whom the work will be channelled and take a stake in it. This is all about business process re-engineering and it’s what the insurance industry did many years ago. I don’t see Tesco lawyers in store, more a triage type scenario, leading the more serious and profitable cases on to proper litigation handlers. The model of partners being both shareholders and profit sharers will I think go in the bulk end of the market. There will always be an expert end of the Bar but to treat the Bar as if it is one business model is simply unrealistic.
You’ve been at the Bar for a number of years now, how have you seen the Bar change in that time?
I go back to 1991 when there were about 4,500 barristers. Today that figure is now pushing 13,000. The big change has been the growth in the size of sets. It’s all down to economies of scale. It costs a lot more to run a chambers now than ever before. Technology was nothing when I started but the pace of growth has been exponential with mobiles, emails and BlackBerrys and so the pace of the Bar has also moved up a couple of gears. The management of chambers has also had to keep pace with this growth. Chambers are, in reality, multi-million pound businesses which need to be run along sound business principles, hence the other big change, the arrival of the professional manager.
What interesting cases are your chambers handling at the moment?
Our environmental cases are probably some of the most interesting and the most relevant to everyone. Over the next 5-10 years the UK has to resolve its waste and energy problems. Should we have nuclear power stations, what about coal-fired power stations, why can’t we generate enough through renewable energy sources, can we covert waste into energy, should we store waste CO2 underground, what role can bio-fuels play, and how do we cope with flooding or contaminated land? These are all really important issues and the law is changing on a daily basis as a result of constant new directives from the EU to which successive governments have committed us and no doubt will continue to commit us. And then there’s climate change and the impact of the expansion of our airports – I could go on for far too long…
Joanna Poulton was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Anil Shah, LPA Legal