Legal Profession Is ‘Bedazzled By The Legend Of London’

In reality, the capital’s lawyers are no better than their regional counterparts, says The Law Horse

A discussion on the #RoundMyKitchenTable podcast (24 February 2011) may have caught your ear. It caught mine.

At 21:17 of the podcast, Legal Cheek editor Alex Aldridge stumbled into specious territory: “If you want to talk about the hierarchies [of chambers] let’s be blunt…The regions, there’s no doubt, are in status terms below London,” he said. It is a refrain since taken up by others on this site.

Alex raised the matter only in terms of status. He did not say that barristers practising outside London are less capable than their capital cousins. But to state that the provincial Bar is “below” the London Bar is not so many steps short of arguing that those who live beyond the M25 are subject to an inferior standard of justice.

Elevating London above all else is misguided; it is the misguided thinking that a London-centric Inns of Court system inculcates in each and every prospective barrister. Attending the various dining sessions, one could be forgiven for assuming that everyone was a London local. The well-meaning refrain “Why don’t you pop by for lunch?” grates like a Paxman accent in the ears of those forced to travel from farther afield.

But deserved or not, London does enjoy a reputational bias. The question is why…

The answer is partly geographical. The Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) are based in London, as is our Attorney-General’s Office (AGO) and Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The head offices of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), Bar Council and Bar Standards Board (BSB) are rented in the capital. In fact, think of a legal acronym and, chances are, you’ll find it in London. In partitioning itself from the legislature, the Supreme Court now sits a mouth-frothing MP’s spitting distance from Parliament.

The answer is partly social. The Bar struggles with diversity, although issues of race, gender and ethnicity – the visible quotient – are slowly reaching the Bar’s collective consciousness. Socio-economic status, on the other hand, remains largely ignored, especially in our capital. How often is a south London accent represented at the London Bar?

Most of all, however, the answer is commercial. As the self-professed financial capital of the world, London plays host to every conceivable variety of contractual transaction, and where money changes hands, barristers cash in. Magic circle commercial chambers – the richest of the rich and a source of great pride for the Bar – dominate, and niche sets can afford strength in numbers, protected by a healthy caseload.

Chambers evolve according to the demands of their clients. Faced with a relative lack of specialist work, regional chambers develop a broad practice. Does this make London better? Is Usain Bolt the better runner, or would he be defeated over 26 miles by Paula Radcliffe, even if she stopped to crouch at the side of the road?

In my area, crime, the London bias is a statistical game. Housing 14% of the population of England and Wales, London punches above its considerable weight with over 20% of the recorded crime in the jurisdiction (a statistic that does not include crime recorded by the British Transport Police, which, with the city’s airports and stations, is itself a London heavy organisation). London hosts 11 crown courts to deal with the volume of work.

To those practicing in London, it is easy to forget that a legal world exists beyond their city limits, but robust advocacy is not in short supply north of the Watford Gap.

The benefits of practising outside London have been documented many times over, with some interesting personal accounts. Regional sets boast a good practice of offering pupillage with a view to tenancy, whereas in London it can become a blood-thirsty battle to the last pupil standing. Life as a tenant is not always better, with some London chambers known to work their juniors as loss leaders.

In defence of others who have written on this site of their preference for London, the Bar is a way of life. There is little point in attempting to build a practice in a region without empathy for its people and way of life. I’m glad my chambers is where it is; not necessarily because it’s a better place to be, but because it’s an area in which I feel at home. It is my city.

The mistake is to assume that London is the only place one could feel at home. To dismiss the opportunity of pupillage in the provinces betrays a lamentable attitude and unsuitability for the demands of the Bar. There is a reason why some prospective pupils can yet be barristers, whereas others can only pretend.

As with sports and the arts, business and governance, this country is bedazzled by the legend of London, and those who succeed in the capital claim its spoils. But the Bar is not about London or Lancashire, the bright city lights or the pastoral provinces. It is about researching the right chambers for you.

At a time when the provincial Bar is more respected than ever, and a set outside London was crowned Chambers of the Year at the British Legal Awards, can’t we move on from this tired debate?

The Law Horse is an anonymous barrister at the criminal Bar of England and Wales. The Law Horse tweets at @thelawhorse.

3 Responses to “Legal Profession Is ‘Bedazzled By The Legend Of London’”

  1. Simon Myerson

    I agree with most of this. I simply don’t think status is an issue for clients, who tend to care about the cost and the result.

    Status is, however, an issue for solicitors who are perfectly capable of assuming that London counsel means better counsel. In times gone by it was because it afforded ample opportunities to travel to London at the client’s expense for consultations and conferences. Nowadays it is often a form of arse-covering and/or a question of the solicitor’s perception of their own dignity. It is also sometimes to do with marketing – something which ought to be declared to the client in a section on the solicitors (and chambers’) websites.

    One of the other issues is that High Court Judges are drawn disproportionately from the London Bar, keeping the centre of gravity in the capital. That is because most sensible provincial practitioners don’t want to spend 6 months a year away from home in London. For London practitioners this is not an issue – 3 months on circuit, being looked after, waited on, and dined by the great and the good doesn’t compare to double the time living in a pokey flat and making your own entertainment.

    Ultimately, any status argument is self-perpetuating, because the people obsessed by status will go to London where, in due course, they will realise how little it matters besides the daily commute, the incredible expense and the chance to do rubbish work all your life. Most will not admit this and will continue to take comfort in their self-perceived status as a substitute for real achievement. The rest of us can get on and enjoy ourselves. The real test, I find, is to assess the look of astonishment on your opponent’s face when you suggest a drink at the end of the day. No one in the provinces bats an eyelid. People from the smoke almost invariably look astonished. To the trained eye, this represents a clear choice.

  2. I say it with love

    you are instructed by some interesting solicitors.

    All I want from a barrister is someone who’s not going to f-up my file – which you may be surprised to hear is easier said than done.