Our (learned) friends in the North

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Elsa Booth explores the vibrant Manchester commercial and Chancery Bars and considers whether, in this age of connectivity, the term ‘regional’ is becoming less applicable

At a Manchester Civil Justice Centre event last year, Mr Justice Norris suggested that in the legal world, the term ‘provinces’ is redundant and even ‘regional’ is under pressure. 


He said it was time to recognise that for solicitors, barristers practising in a big regional centre was not a pale imitation of a metropolitan reality, but a vital activity in its own right and of national standing.

After all, the principle of ‘One Bar’, operating within ‘one legal market’, can be said to transcend geographical distinctions. With this very much in mind, 2015 Bar Chairman Alistair MacDonald QC said he wanted to ‘expand the amount of specialist work on the Circuits’ and ‘take advantage of the excellence of the specialist London Bar and spread it more widely’™ (Counsel January 2015). Although intended to carry the spirit of ‘One Bar’ (MacDonald himself hails from Leeds and was Leader of the North-Eastern Circuit from 2012-2014), barristers within the Northern Circuit Commercial Bar Association and Northern Chancery Bar Association (NCHBA) were keen that their existing specialism, built up over the last 30 years, along with seismic shift in the client and solicitor marketplace in the North West, was also recognised.

When I meet Mark Cawson QC, Chair of the NCHBA and its immediate past Chair, Lesley Anderson QC – both from large sets in Manchester doing commercial and Chancery work – they suggest to me that excellence is not defined by location. They point out that as a barrister ‘you are only as good as your last case’, and reinforce that it is the individual’s track record to which instructing solicitors are drawn, rather than a set of chambers or location.

Instead, they reason that most typical chambers in London doing Chancery and commercial work are ‘absolutely on a par, in terms of excellence, experience and expertise, with those in Manchester’. Most instructing solicitors in the North West only looked to instruct counsel outside the region to secure the services of a specific stellar individual or to go to one of a handful of niche London chambers, which were the exception. Anderson asserts that the oft-assumed notion that local instructing solicitors revert to London per se, when requiring ‘expertise’ or ‘experience’, ‘fails to reflect [today’s] reality’ and One Bar.

A Northern market revolution

The reasons for this reality are multi-fold, they suggest. While 30 years ago, there was less specialist work on the Circuit, today they suggest there is an overflow. While there had always been Chancery work, the key change was the development of commercial work.

The client base in Manchester began to change, so too the type of work, going from traditional Chancery to commercial disputes, and then from disputes concerning manufacturing businesses to disputes in the services, particularly the financial service sector. Commonplace commercial claims now include shareholder disputes, commercial fraud claims and multiple claims.

Naturally the Bar has evolved with the market. Silks based in Manchester are regularly instructed on specialist commercial cases with claims running into tens of millions. Anderson mentions in passing a shareholder dispute of £35m+. Cawson refers to a recent involvement in defending a £34.5m deceit claim against Leeds City Council. They offer such examples by way of the flavour of the sort of claims now litigated by the Manchester Bar. The NCHBA was established as far back as 1987 with a view to meeting the competitive threat of London. So while all NCHBA members might play an active role in both the Chancery Bar Association and ComBar, they are also very much part of the NCHBA. Now with 70 members, a great many of whom also sit as Deputy High Court Judges, it runs an annual conference; the last of which attracted 50 or 60 of its members. All suggesting that in an era of conference-attendance apathy, barristers doing commercial work in the North West are keen and active participants within their sector.

Another factor supporting the growth of commercial expertise within the region, Anderson argues, has been the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, state of the art when it opened in 2007. Both she and Cawson highlight the quality of the specialist judges who sit there, such as Norris J who regularly sits in Manchester and across the North West in his capacity as Vice Chancellor of the County Palatine of Lancaster. Confidence in the quality of the judges, they claim, and ‘the tight way cases are run, encourage Manchester solicitors to instruct locally’.

Perhaps the biggest recent factor of all, however, in contributing to this change in the pattern of work is client perception. The ease with which barrister profiles can be accessed online has been crucial in highlighting expertise in the domestic market. True, the overseas markets, as yet, remain untapped by most Manchester chambers but they are still a very real target. Anderson refers to Chambers’ links with Dubai and Cawson jokes that on his trips to Hong Kong, location-brand recognition is far from an issue, with Manchester (United) the name on everyone’s lips.

Anderson and Cawson report that junior barristers across the spectrum are ‘rushed off their feet’. And since there is a huge amount of work done by North West-based solicitors, on behalf of clients from across the whole of the UK, it is no surprise that much of the litigation is conducted in London. Cawson estimates 30% of his cases have a London connection, Anderson 40%; both regularly appear in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

The train tracks to the Capital are therefore pounded. Cawson – based at Manchester’s Exchange Chambers – is also a tenant at Threestone, Lincoln’s Inn for this purpose. Anderson, based at Manchester’s Kings’ Chambers, is a tenant at London’s Hardwicke Chambers. Both point out that within their London chambers – which Anderson describes as ‘a confederate of peers’ – they receive nothing but a sense of parity, as indeed they do from their London-based opponents.

This is not, after all, an Elizabeth Gaskell novel; the distinctions between north and south are, in this communication age of connectivity, becoming moribund.

The historical pull of the Capital

In numerical terms alone, however, a substantial proportion of the country’s sets are concentrated in London and many instructions are sent there. Anderson relays an ironic story about receiving instructions from an existing client via London’s Hardwicke Chambers rather than via her Manchester chambers. Equally, the opening of a Manchester office for 39 Essex Street in 2009, to serve as a base for when its members are in the region doing work, including commercial, would suggest instructions continue to go South with regularity.

Anderson and Cawson cannot estimate quite how many instructions go the way of London, but do say that ‘the pool is smaller in Manchester and there is a greater chance of a conflict of interest’. Also, they are aware there are certain solicitors who turn to London simply because that is what they have always done.

It is equally likely, however, that the pull to instruct London counsel by North West-based solicitors is as much for cost-related reasons in the case of long trials, as anything else. Perception is probably also significant, London being regarded as the central commercial hub and a globally renowned arbitration centre. Perception inevitably influences clients and the duty to marry the needs of the individual client to a particular barrister with the right qualities is, wherever he or she may be based, after all, paramount. Lisa Shacklock, partner at Manchester boutique law firm, Turner Parkinson, instructs locally all the time but admits she has also instructed London counsel ‘in matters where a particular specialism is required, such as pensions or tax’.

Innovation

Perhaps, then, the most progressive business step is embodied in the recent initiative of 23 Essex Street which since July has a commercial team – going under the sub-brand 23ESCommercial – in Manchester. It is the first chambers doing commercial work within the City to also have a base in London (though many other regional cities have chambers with a presence in London, such as Enterprise Chambers in Leeds). When asked whether there are any advantages of being associated with a London chambers, 23ES barrister Brad Pomfret suggests that ‘as commercial barristers, many of our lay and professional clients have offices in Manchester and London. Clearly they do that for commercial reasons and it makes sense for us to mirror them’. Pomfret envisages cross referral work happening between both branches in regulatory or professional negligence and argues that ‘links are there to be made’ with London solicitors also.

Certainly this innovation is welcomed by Manchester-based solicitors Kuits’ partner, Daniel Fitzgerald, who explains that being able to offer his commercial lender clients instructing barristers with a base in London was a ‘significant advantage’. ‘When the clients have a London presence,’ he says, ‘our efforts to be accessible and align ourselves to their needs can only be helped where the barristers we use have a base in the City.’

Turner Parkinson’s Shacklock echoes this, saying ‘where it’s been cost effective to instruct London counsel, I can now instruct local counsel and make a significant saving due to the London base’. She describes the endeavour as ‘refreshing‘™ and ‘a totally different offering‘, as well as it being very useful to have an entrant into the London marketplace with ‘an eye on both markets and courts‘.

So unlike having a door tenancy in London, in essence a personal link, this is a clear business link with London. But does the fact that 23ES is known in London for being a leading criminal set detract from the proposition? Not according to Pomfret, who argues that legal services are ‘one market‘, merely with different categories. The brand simply sets the benchmark ‘for high standards across the spectrum of services‘. In an age where criminal sets are under increased pressure to innovate, this is a classic example of diversification. Solicitor Shacklock suggests that since some of her cases have a ‘criminal angle‘, such as commercial fraud, the breadth of specialism offered by such a chambers is, in fact, advantageous.

The red herring of geography

Arguably, geography, as a way of defining or confining solicitor instructions, is a red herring.

The crucial thing, to meet client needs, may or may not require counsel from a specific city in the UK. This issue seems to be less about location, more about the Bar and its future and operating as One Bar and in one legal market – about its members learning from and, identifying those beacons of modernisation and best practice in an increasingly competitive marketplace, wherever they may be.

These chambers could be held up as an example of best practice on a number of levels. Walking into the airy and corporate-style offices of Cawson’s Exchange Chambers – more akin to a law firm – it was clear they had embraced modernity. This is equally evident with their recruitment policies; it is not that they eschew the Oxbridge template, more that they are genuinely open to entrants from all walks of life. Anderson and Cawson cited their last few pupils having included a mother of two very young children, a former investment banker and a former chartered surveyor.

Their diversity figures likewise, are pretty sound too. According to The Lawyer in August, both Exchange and King are in the top 10 chambers for numbers of women members (Exchange 43/155, Kings 32/106). And their approach to business with department targets and tight committees suggested that they had grasped the essentials for surviving and thriving some 15 years ago.

So, along with the proposed and newly christened HS3 ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail‘, a transport system undergoing the most radical transformation in decades, it is fair to say the Manchester Bar is and will be running along very well oiled grooves.

Contributor Elsa Booth, freelance writer, editor and chambers’ consultant

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Elsa Booth

Qualified as a solicitor, Elsa has over 16 years’ experience in the legal market with global corporate legal information provider, Lexis Nexis, including a decade as managing editor of Counsel. She will now be providing consultancy services to help chambers develop client care strategies and effective marketing programmes to build brand. Email: elsabooth@aol.com