Two commercial bar chambers are merging today in the latest sign of volatility in the sector following the shock dissolution of 11 Stone Buildings last September – but they are sticking with a traditional business model.
Commercial chambers 3 Stone Buildings and 13 Old Square Chambers are today joining forces to create Three Stone Chambers, headed by John McDonnell QC (pictured), with core specialisms in chancery, commercial, insolvency and property.
The set is occupying the premises in Lincoln’s Inn at 13-14 Old Square, and 3 Stone Buildings. It has seven silks, 40 junior barristers and six clerks and support staff, with plans to grow.
Andrew Cosedge, former head of chambers at 3 Stone Buildings, said the merger has left the set in an ‘improved position’. However he told the Gazette that the merger was initially inspired by a series of departures despite the chambers experiencing a record financial year.
Four ‘natural moves’ from the set last October turned into ‘a bit of a stampede’, which led to almost half its barristers leaving.
He blamed the loss of confidence on the spectacle of 11 Stone Buildings going under. ‘Over the road we had just been watching 11 Stone Buildings fall apart,' Cosedge said. 'We could see the removal men, and the lights turning off.’
‘Although we were perfectly successful and robust, and were actually having our best year ever, people were just losing confidence and jumping.’
Cosedge said it was a difficult situation to deal with, as there was ‘no logical explanation’. He said the difficulty with the chambers model was that there is no way of tying self-employed barristers down, whatever a set has by way of constitution or rules.
He said: ‘You don’t have the same incentive as firms. Everyone talks of a chambers brand and goodwill but there is no marketable goodwill so there is no compulsion to stay.’
However he said Three Stone Chambers has no wish to change the model, instead relying on communication and alertness to avoid a repetition.
While some practitioners at the commercial bar said 11 Stone Buildings' troubles highlighted the advantages of corporate structures with practice and marketing managers, Three Stone Chambers will instead focus on traditional clerking, with a chambers made up of individuals sharing accommodation and facilities.
Robert Bourne, a barrister at Three Stone Chambers who was formerly at 13 Old Square Chambers, said: ‘One of the tendencies in the bar over the last 20 years is to downplay traditional clerking. Both sets agree traditional clerking is the way to go.’
He said the merged chambers will provide a low-cost model, which will charge its members 20% of their fees. ‘In the present economic environment one thing solicitors don’t think is "what we want is higher fees",' he added.