The time is coming when the distinction between solicitors and barristers will be “more a matter of tribal culture than function”, the Law Society president has predicted, with common education, training and even potentially regulation on the agenda.
In a significant speech to Saïd Business School last night, John Wotton said that with the narrowing division between solicitors and barristers, “there must be competitive advantages and efficiencies to be gained from having the full range of dispute resolution services under the same roof”.
However, he questioned whether it makes sense for the Bar to establish “additional structures such as ProcureCo… when any mixed solicitor/barrister, SRA-regulated practice, can provide an integrated service”. He suggested that the Bar Council’s emphasis on direct access might stretch the chambers model of practice to “breaking point”.
Mr Wotton said that in the short-to-medium term, he expects to see more barristers practising in entities regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and more higher and lower court advocacy undertaken by the barristers and solicitor-advocates of the firm conducting the litigation.
“It is not unreasonable to expect to see more barristers undertaking their pupillages in such practices and I suggest joining such a practice, as a salaried employee, could be a more attractive way for an aspiring advocate to start his or her career than embarking on a pupillage in a set of chambers.”
In this context, he saw advantages to common education and a training model “offering flexibility for trainees to move on into advocacy or t
ransactional practice, depending on particular modules of study”. This would facilitate “a significant proportion of advocates gaining their training in SRA-regulated entities, with some moving to the independent Bar at a later stage of their careers”.
He continued: “It is particularly at the more experienced and specialised end of the advocacy market that economic and public interest considerations favour the existence of an independent, referral-based Bar, whose services are potentially available to all law firms and their clients.”
Mr Wotton said the separate professional titles are likely to survive for the foreseeable future, “if only because there is no strong current of opinion in favour of fusion”.
“The Bar has a well-established, relatively low-cost model for its traditional work, from which it will not lightly depart (though I harbour doubts about the long-term sustainability of the low fees charged by junior barristers in some cases). One might, however, envisage a time in which the distinction between barrister and solicitor is more a matter of tribal culture than function.”
This led to the question of whether solicitors and barristers need separate regulators and codes of conduct. A merger between the SRA and Bar Standards Board, without losing either the distinct professional titles of barrister and solicitor, or the separate professional bodies of which they are respectively members, was an option, he said.
“The advantages? A single code of conduct for areas of overlap, such as advocacy, conflicts of interests and rules regarding entities. But the costs – of initial integration and of long term loss of competitive stimulus – are likely to outweigh those benefits unless mixed practices of barristers and solicitors were so prevalent that separate regulation could no longer be justified.”