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One-in-four lawyers believe the Legal Services Act is likely to spell the end of the Bar, with Tesco law and one-stop solicitor-advocates set for prominence in the post-reform marketplace. Claire Ruckin reports on the latest Big Question survey

More than half of the UK’s leading lawyers believe the Bar’s independence is under threat from sweeping reforms contained in the Legal Services Act (LSA), according to new research.

The finding is part of the latest Legal Week/EJ Legal Big Question survey, which polled senior solicitors on their views on the future of the Bar in the wake of fundamental reform to the UK’s regulatory framework for legal services.

Fifty-eight percent of responding partners said that the LSA was a threat to the future of the Bar, including 12% who thought the Act was a threat to the extent that ‘the writing is on the wall’ for the Bar’s future.

The survey also found mixed views about whether the Bar would survive at all. Asked if the Bar would exist as an independent profession 20 years from now, only 16% strongly agreed, though 44% of respondents believed that the Bar would ‘probably’ survive. Forty-one percent believed its survival was in doubt, including 25% who said it was unlikely to continue.

Linklaters head of advocacy, Mark Humphries (pictured right), commented: “We are starting to see the beginnings of a generational change in which newly-qualified commercial litigation solicitors no longer think in terms of a split profession but regard themselves as one-stop dispute resolution lawyers who provide a full service to their clients, including advocacy.”

He added: “The trend, currently in its infancy, will put increasing pressure on the commercial Bar with less work to be shared around as more of it is done by solicitor-advocates. Except to the extent that commercial barristers continue to move into non-advocacy markets, such as arbitrators or mediators, the number of practising barristers at the commercial Bar is unlikely to increase and may well slowly decrease.”

Outer Temple Chambers commercial director Christine Kings (pictured left) commented: “I expect the Bar will get smaller and other companies coming into the market – such as the so-called ‘Tesco law’ models – will affect the Bar substantially. I do not think the changes will be sudden – it is bound to be a gradual process. But I do think there will still always be the need for a specialist Bar, with good quality advocates who are good value for money.”

The survey, which drew responses from more than 100 leading partners, comes after the Bar Standard Board (BSB) issued a consultation earlier this month (6 February) as part of a root-and-branch review of the future of the profession in light of the LSA. The Act, which has already received Royal Assent, is set to come into full effect by 2012.

The consultation will gather opinions on issues such as how barristers will be able to form partnerships with non-barristers, whether the content of the Bar Vocational Course will change if barristers can provide litigation services in a similar way to solicitors and whether a compensation fund will be needed if barristers handle client money.

However, 61% of respondents believe the Bar Council and the BSB have so far had little or no impact in repositioning the Bar to cope with the post-LSA environment.

David Pope, director of Denton Wilde Sapte’s advocacy group and a qualified barrister, said: “The Bar and the BSB have been effective in the sense that they have done a great deal of work in analysing the effect of the LSA and producing reports. But I am not so convinced that they have repositioned the Bar. Barristers have generally been opposed to many of the proposed changes.”

The ability for barristers and solicitors to practise together as Legal Disciplinary Partnerships (LDPs), a key element of the LSA, received a mixed response from partners, with 31% of respondents saying the new structure would be met with little enthusiasm and the same amount undecided. Only 6% thought the new structure had ‘huge’ potential. A further 28% thought that there would be ‘considerable’ scope for the two sides to merge.

Kings told Legal Week: “LDPs could impact on the independence of the Bar. It is not yet clear what would make this attractive to barristers, but in the new marketplace other options will develop and it will be more competitive. With potential big players entering the market such as insurance companies or supermarkets, solicitors and barristers will be under pressure to be more competitive. This may increase the popularity among the profession for LDPs.”

Pope added: “There will be enthusiasm among lawyers for LDPs, but I doubt it will be widespread at first. The solicitors’ profession may welcome the changes more than the Bar as they appear to have the most to gain by offering a more complete service to clients.”

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