Anyone who thinks the Bar is going to roll over or fade gracefully away amid the welter of criticism, competition and wider rights of audience should speak to the new Bar Council chairman, Jonathan Hirst QC.

Fading away is not on his agenda for his year of office.

Nor is a single unified profession.The affable Mr Hirst's willingness to humour questioners should not be taken as a sign that the Bar is sitting idly by as solicitors and others compete with it, particularly for advocacy.

'The Bar is going to compete, and compete vigorously,' he says, adding, with what sounds like a hint of spin, 'we are a healthy, dynamic profession'.Although the tired question of whether barristers should still wear wigs was highlighted as one of Mr Hirst's initial considerations from his inaugural speech in December, it was instantly overshadowed by a Bar Council report concluding that it was up to 50% cheaper to instruct the Bar than a solicitor in some cases.Quick to point out the report was not a pre-emptive strike on solicitors or solicitor-advocates, Mr Hirst concedes that in a such a competitive market, 'it pays to be one step ahead'.

He says simply that the report proved what the Bar 'rather expected' - that it is good value for money.Many solicitors may well agree.

What they may not be so quick to endorse is the Bar's suggestion that the Law Society's practice rules should be amended to force solicitors to tell clients when barristers' rates would be lower than keeping work in-house.

Mr Hirst says it is unjustifiable to allow a client to incur twice the cost by using a solicitor 'when he does not realise, because he is not told, that he could probably get a better service at a much more cost effective price at the Bar'.The roll out of the BarDirect scheme this year should also disabuse anyone left with the idea that the Bar is not fighting back.

The scheme already allows a number of organisations, such as North Yorkshire Police, members of the Insolvency Practitioners Association, and the Medical Defence Union, to go direct to barristers.

After the success of the pilot scheme, Mr Hirst thinks it will rapidly spread to take in trade unions, insurance companies and banks.However, to soothe solicitors, the new chairman adds: 'Let us be clear about BarDirect.

It is not about doing solicitors' work; it is about making the Bar more flexible and accessible in the way it delivers its services.' Mr Hirst says that barristers know when a case needs the skills of a solicitors' team to run it.

The Bar's rules will make it perfectly plain that once they get to that stage, they must tell the client.'I think most barristers' chambers are very conscious of the economics of running a practice and the last thing in the world they they would want to do is to load onto their expenses unnecessary overheads.' Overheads are the main reason solicitors can cost twice as much as barristers, he says.The wig debate is part of the wider push for modernisation of the Bar along with other projects like the BarMark scheme - a quality assurance mark for chambers - increased use of IT and full training to deal with the Human Rights Act 1998.

However, that modernisation stops very much short of a unified profession, according to Mr Hirst, who says the Bar 'has not the slightest interest in fusion'.The proposal for a single profession, put forward last year by Law Society President Robert Sayer, was 'singularly ill-judged' and 'completely out of touch' with the views of the solicitors' profession, he claims.

Most solicitors see barristers as a 'valuable service' without whose specialist advice and advocacy, many firms could not survive.Unsurprisingly, there is also no appetite amongst the Bar or its chairman to back any change in the existing system by which QCs and judges are appointed.

While Mr Hirst says he regrets the phrase 'secret soundings' - used to describe the informal seeking of views on candidates from judges and others on prospective candidates - because it gives a 'conspiratorial air', he says any appointments system must allow an appointee to obtain the 'frank views of those who have seen the candidate in action'.

The sy stem as it stands provides a high calibre of judge which must not be compromised, he says, adding that the system is changing and will allow more women, ethnic minority and solicitors to come forward in time.JONATHAN WILLIAM HIRST-- Born in 1953, the eldest son of Lord Justice of Appeal, Lord Justice Hirst, who was himself chairman of the Bar from 1978-9.

Brought up in Hampton, London.-- Attended Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge where he read law.-- Called to the Inner Temple Bar in 1975.-- Practises predominantly commercial law at Brick Court Chambers in London, although he also practises some entertainment, professional negligence and intellectual property work.-- Joined the Bar Council in 1987.

Has chaired its law reform and professional standards committees.-- Took silk in 1990.-- Has been a Crown Court recorder since 1997.-- Committee member of the London Common Law and Commercial Bar Assocation.-- Notable cases include: acting for the Beatles in their claim against EMI over payment entitlements and later in an action over the record company's release of the Red and Blue albums; acting for Sting against Coutts Bank for paying out money without authority after his accountant was found to have stolen money from his personal account; the Lloyds litigation; and acting for Coopers & Lybrand, auditors of many of Robert Maxwell's companies, after his death.Lists hobbies in Who's Who as shooting, gardening and other country pursuits.