A decade ago, the accepted wisdom was that the Bar was in decline and Chambers would have to evolve into fully fledged commercial entities. They would need to morph into organisations akin to boutique law firms and increasingly deploy alternative business models if they were to survive.
The logic that the steady increase of direct access would support that shift seemed logical. But it was just wrong. As we explore this month, the traditional sets at the top of the City disputes market have instead been tightening their grip. In an age in which elite sets can generate £60m a year and charge out top silks for more than £1,000-an-hour, far from increasing chambers’ contributions to fund slicker business and marketing support, the best sets can hold down their dues. And the clerking model, which ten to 15 years ago looked to be on the way out, has instead reasserted itself.
The arbitration boom and the increasing unwillingness of senior silks to go to the bench has further strengthened London’s top sets.
The exception to this rosy picture is mid-tier sets, which are struggling to retain their position in a soft disputes market. Top sets are taking a bigger share of the cake (many of London’s elite sets now generate twice the turnover they managed a decade ago) and nervous silks are increasingly likely to set out to another home. 11 Stone Buildings dissolved in 2015, and on current form several sets are under significant pressure.
Meanwhile, as traditional models confound the critics, the last two years have been a poor run for the ‘NewLaw’ brigade. Parabis, the first legal player to secure substantial private equity investment, crashed into administration in 2015; Slater and Gordon’s impressive momentum has been halted by regulatory upheaval and the troubled acquisition of Quindell; while two other standard bearers, Co-op and QualitySolicitors, have faltered. The exception to this is the contract lawyering and managed services pioneers of Axiom, Lawyers On Demand and Riverview Law, who have gone some way to justifying the rhetoric, but overall the brave new world of law looks eerily familiar. There has been some innovation in law, but much of what is being touted currently looks increasingly, well, old. Given how well tradition has been faring against the shiny new, it’s not hard to see why.
To discuss further, or to begin a discussion about any other aspect of the legal market, contact James Yates at Espero Consulting: firstname.lastname@example.org / +44 (0)203 893 8965.