It is a given that the wider the spread of skills within any given chambers, the greater the fields of general practice which can be amply covered. The quickest and simplest way to do this is, of course, to have more people; to build more “teams”. It looks, sounds and is for some very attractive. All those big numbers and great titles. In a profession with but one demarcated career step it is not surprising that counsel love titles.
Then there is the issue of publicly funded work to consider. Where fees come almost exclusively from the ever more parsimonious “people’s purse”, the temptation to “grow, grow, grow” grows ever stronger. Rates are down, work volume reduced, solicitor advocates barking at the door and alternative business structures on the horizon. It doesn’t take much for chambers’ elders to head for the enticing remedy of “stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap”. It looks bold and progressive and of course, the men from the Ministry would be proud.
Let’s not forget that nobody loves the one-stop-shop more than the Government. But spare a thought for the would-be instructing solicitors pushing their trolleys through the neon-lit aisles of Tesco-law Megastore Chambers looking for that very particular piece of specialist advice and high quality representation. As they cast their eye over endless home-brand value-packs of ready-salted counsel, many might just be thinking, what ever happened to that high-class retailer that was here before?
I do not accept that Wal-Mart Chambers is a vision of the future of the self-employed Bar that is worth striving for. After all, what is the final destination of this particular route? A single set for a single city or circuit? Why stop there? Imagine the economies of scale if there were but one English and Welsh set of chambers (whoops the Criminal Defence Service). Think of the savings you could make when you spoke to the printers, not to mention the deal that could be struck on blue books. Life at the Bar Council would become immeasurably easier and you could probably even put three of those Inns of Court out to grass. Then you could get on with real streamlining.
In this brave new vision of Mega-mart legal-service provision, there’s no room for awkward packaging. Advices, opinions, skeletons and submissions can all be downloaded from the central store and quickly adapted.
Supply and demand
Seriously, though, there is of course a place for the mass-retailer-cum-legal-service-wholesaler but it is not, I think, in a referral profession like ours. There are fundamental problems that the mega-set cannot overcome, on both the demand and supply sides. The demand side issue is clear. With so many counsel to manage and so varied a display of areas there are real difficulties with providing the guarantee of quality that the professional client demands. How will the instructing solicitor truly know that all 487 members of the general crime group offer the same level of quality of service? How, for that matter, will the regional/group head? After all, it will be a rare day that all the members of a large team in a vast set are in the same building, let alone the same room. How many members of such a “team” will ever meet across a courtroom? There must be real doubt that when the instructing solicitor cannot get hold of Mr Handsome, he is not getting either Mr Homely, or Mr Notsopretty in his place.
Then there is the supply side. As counsel sits upon the cold steel shelf, 27 storeys up, in a remote corner of Ikea Chambers, he or she will no doubt ponder why it is all those entries on the glossy web brochure all look the same, those 40 web pages of commercially crafted beguiling smiles. How does counsel get to stand out? How does the package on the 27th floor shine above all the others in the brochure? What do they have to do to get noticed? Are we putting our practitioners, and particularly the young ones, in circumstances that may prove detrimental to them?
Excellence through specialism
I have seen these issues arise in real life. As the former head of a large, successful criminal chambers in London with a great future, I dealt daily with the tension between the need to make chambers commercially viable and the need for absolute quality control. In the end, after 19 years, I came to the view that the true mark of the independent Bar is, as it has always been, excellence through specialism. That requires focus and in return it guarantees the highest standards. Having reached those conclusions I have had to live with the courage of my convictions.
The result has been the founding of an entirely new set of chambers: 14 practitioners specialising in the developing field, at the junction between crime and civil, of asset forfeiture and general commercial wrongdoing. The reception from solicitors has been fantastic. They find the idea of having leading practitioners in one field under the same roof and concentrating on the same thing exactly what our referral profession should be about. It also perfectly fits with their need to have the right people in the right place available and ready to give the right advice at the right time. Bespoke, naturally.
Andrew Mitchell is the head of a new set, the Chambers of Andrew Mitchell QC, at 33 Chancery Lane