The collective noun “chambers” has two meanings. It can refer to the office block or suite where barristers practise as in “New Court” or “Bridge Street Chambers”. The term can also refer to the barristers who practise from those premises. Chambers in both senses are very much an English and Welsh institution although there are barristers’ chambers in parts of Australia and South Africa. In other common law jurisdictions where the legal profession is divided, barristers subscribe to a library. Advocates (as barristers are called in Scotland) practise in “stables” which are a half-way house between the library system and “chambers”.
Barristers practise together in chambers for several reasons:
- to share expenses such as rent, rates, office equipment and employees;
- to share knowledge and experience;
- to refer clients to each other;
- to provide advice and support to each other;
- to train entrants known as “pupils” and younger or less experienced members of the Bar; and
- out of friendship.
Traditionally, chambers consisted of a barrister known as “the head of chambers” who took a lease to a suite of rooms, equipped and furnished them and employed a clerk and “tenants” who contributed towards the heads expenses in return for a right to practise from those rooms. The head of chambers and tenants are known collectively as “members of chambers”. The clerk served as the office manager and agent for each of the members. His or her job was to solicit work for his barristers, negotiate fees and collect them after the work had been done.
Until the 1980s chambers tended to be fairly small, particularly in intellectual property and other specialist work. It was possible for members of chambers to make all important decisions collectively. For various reasons many chambers have grown rapidly since 1990 and it is no longer unusual to find sets of 100 members or more. Obviously sets of that size cannot be run collectively and chambers management tends to be delegated to management committees and clerks. Often, that gives rise to tensions between members resulting ultimately in the disbanding of chambers. Another difficulty is that few clerks and barristers have any training in management, financial planning, marketing, industrial relations and other business skills and are simply not up to job. Consequently chambers have to disband because they are unable to pay their way.
It has recently become possible for barristers to practise in partnership with other legal professionals as well as with each other in legal disciplinary practices (“LDP”) and it will soon be possible for other entities known as “alternative business structures” (“ABS”) to offer legal services. Competition from LDPs and ABSs will exert even greater pressures on chambers and it is inevitable that many will not survive.
NIPC Law was one of the first sets of chambers in England and Wales to anticipate and plan for those changes. We have cut expenses to the bone by locating our back office outside London and investing heavily on information technology. We already providing a wider range of IP services to businesses than has traditionally been offered by the bar, such as CPD training, inventors’ clubs, IP training and publications, through NIPC Ltd. and our regional networks IP Yorkshire and IP North-West. We will expand these activities just as soon as the expected changes in the law allow.