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.’