More chambers at risk in 11 Stone Buildings fallout

Topics: The Bar

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The sudden collapse of 11 Stone Buildings could be a harbinger of more commercial set closures this year, practitioners at the bar have warned.

Since the dissolution of the chancery set five months ago, the commercial bar has been reflecting on the chambers model in anticipation of more shocks as pressure grows for it to adopt more corporate structures.


The Gazette understands that at least two sets are already considering dissolving.

Nicholas Luckman, practice director at Wilberforce Chambers, told the Gazette: ‘11 Stone Buildings are not the only chambers who are going to find their business model isn’t viable any more. In this commercial environment, sets need to make sure the chambers brand is as visible as the individual brand of its members.’

He said: ‘Barristers are looking at getting into the sets that have a clear sense of strategic direction, supported by good professional management and with a brand that is capable of reaching the markets smaller sets can’t.’

Although 11 Stone Buildings was well regarded and not struggling financially, a number of barristers have cited its management structure as the primary reason for its collapse.

This, some say, has highlighted the need for the bar to plan ahead and put corporate structures in place, including hiring practice directors or chief executives.

Fiona Fitzgerald, chief executive at Radcliffe Chambers, said: ‘Where some chambers have struggled is they do not have a strategic plan. We know of a number of chambers that are struggling and thinking of splitting. The bar hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years. But over the last two years the commercial bar has seen some of the biggest changes yet and this year is no different.’

She said that last year more chambers brought in a chief executive or strategic director – but warned that new structures are expensive to introduce.

While there is still a place in the market for niche sets, mid-sized sets are seen as being in a particularly vulnerable position. According to one senior clerk there is now a growing trend for the larger chambers to cherry-pick to the best barrister from the smaller ones. ‘And for chambers with under 10 silks, if just one or two silks leave, this has a big impact on the set as a whole.’

Christopher Boardman, a barrister formerly at 11 Stone Buildings and now at Radcliffe Chambers, said the integration of chancery and commercial areas is also making it tough for some chambers.

He said: ‘The corporatisation and branding of chambers means clients like to have a range of services in one place.’

The problem with the traditional structure is that heads of chambers do not have enough time to think about strategic direction, he added. Time spent on the business is time away from fee-earning, and unlike a solicitors’ firm, where profits are shared, barristers have only their own fees to rely on.

Ultimately, Boardman said, no one at 11 Stone Buildings thought about the business side until it was too late: ‘We can’t afford that sort of apathy. Barristers are being dragged into the future.’

Michael Couling, 11 Stone Buildings’ former chambers director, said: ’The unfortunate and avoidable demise of 11 Stone Buildings was a tragic consequence of the differing aspirations of groups of its members. This is a reminder to us all of the fragility of the chambers model, even in circumstances where the set is prospering financially and in the marketplace generally.

’This serves as a note of caution not only to the mid-sized chambers but also the larger sets of the breed that may be vulnerable to the aspirations of the truly commercial super-sets as they are unable to provide a sufficiently commercial brand and platform commensurate with the strategic ambitions of some of its members.’

Readers' comments (7)

  • "...The problem with the traditional structure is that heads of chambers do not have enough time to think about strategic direction, he added. Time spent on the business is time away from fee-earning, and unlike a solicitors’ firm, where profits are shared, barristers have only their own fees to rely on. ..."

    Sadly, now Barristers are going to find out they they should have supported solicitors with their amid skills and left their endeavours to what they do best, which is referral work and in particular looking at cases with a fresh pair of eyes.

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  • Admin Skills.

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  • Ultimately, the future is in entities containing both solicitors and barristers, so that clients are able to get all the advice and assistance they need at one point and in a (relatively) cost efficient way.

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  • Ultimately the future is fusion, like it or not.
    Personally I do not. I like being able to pick Counsel from an independent Bar to advise within specialist areas, and to provide specialist advocacy skills. Everything "in house" has far more disadvantages than advantages, but that is the direction of travel. Solicitors being told to be "business" first. Barristers chambers being told to "brand" themselves,and the inexorable drive towards "one stop shopping". I fear it will all end up for the worse

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  • Now the privileged in ivory towers are starting to feel the cold chill visited on them, by their own, then naive non business savvy Judiciary. I bet good old Charlie Falconer is beginning to squirm as his brain child starts to grow. You deserve al you get.

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  • Leadership is key and unfortunately it is not something the Bar has invested in acquiring. Challenging times ahead.

    But I look forward to the discussion on this with the Practice Directors and Chief Execs at the LPMA conference at the end of the month - timely :)

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  • Fusion and corporate entities don't have to be the outcome. They are certainly not the answer that most barristers or solicitors want, nor are they likely to be "(relatively) cost efficient" solutions. Predictions of the Bar's impending demise seem to have been around for decades. As the Chief Exec of Radcliffe indicates, what is needed is a more progressive approach towards the strategy and business management of chambers, which provides direction and stability within the existing model of a collective of individual, self-employed practices.

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