Antitrust, Letter from London, Litigators, Magic Circle, Money, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Letter from London: The Queen’s Lawyers

Be careful what you write when you’re young and idealistic.

In 2003, David Wolfe, a lawyer who works alongside Cherie Blair at top London human rights shop Matrix Chambers, decided he was unhappy with the way the British legal hierarchy works. So he co-signed an open letter criticising the Queen’s Counsel (QC) system –- a process that sees a handful of barristers (British trial lawyers) promoted to the elite QC rank each year, enabling them to charge clients more money. “The QC system cannot be justified as being in the public interest or promoting competition,” the letter stated.

Nine years on, and last week Wolfe found himself made up to QC — an honour which, despite the name, involves no input from the Queen or her family members. He didn’t decline. Indeed, all QCs have to actively apply in order to gain the title. Unfortunately for Wolfe, someone mentioned his youthful letter to RollOnFriday, a widely read U.K. legal blog.

When contacted about the letter, Wolfe responded….

“Thanks for the opportunity to restate my personal views on the QC system. I applied this time when it was clear that lack of ‘QC’ meant I was losing work and could not service my clients fully. But I will not be putting my fees up as a result of it, and I continue vigorously to push for effective quality assurance systems for all advocates, which the QC system is not. Lack of mandatory periodic re-accreditation, and the lack of any real linkage to area of practice remain just two of the fundamental problems. So no ‘youthful indiscretion’ here — sorry to disappoint.”

Wolfe is by no means the only British lawyer to have publicly criticised the QC system (which dates back to the 1500s, when it was first used as a way to highlight the U.K.’s best lawyers). Other leading barristers with the QC designation, including Clare Montgomery, Tim Owen, and Rhodri Thompson, have also expressed their unease with what they believe to be an unfair and anti-competitive “quality mark”. A high court judge, Sir Gavin Lightman, has even gone so far as to describe the tag QC as “a licence to print money”.

Of course, how much money depends on the area a lawyer practices in. Wolfe, who specialises in publicly-funded work, will never pull in anything close to the sums made by top commercial barristers like Jonathan Sumption QC — who apparently gets paid £1,500 an hour by his Russian oligarch clients — or indeed Piers Warburton, the finance partner at London Biglaw firm Ashurst who co-owns the aforementioned RollOnFriday blog.

Elsewhere, recent research has shown that six top British law firms would make the FTSE 100 if they went public –- as the U.K’s freshly implemented Legal Services Act (LSA) allows firms to do. According to the study, by Europa Partners, Allen & Overy, Freshfields, Linklaters, Hogan Lovells, Clifford Chance and DLA Piper would all make the elite list, with each nominally valued at over £2bn if they floated. The survey added that partners at Slaughter and May –- long believed to be the most profitable law firm in London — would stand to make more than £8m each if the firm went public.

However, few expect these firms to list anytime soon, with the interest in going public limited, to date, to smaller firms. Commenting on the figures, A&O’s managing partner Wim Dejonghe said: “These valuations show there has been a quiet revolution over the last 10 years in the UK legal sector. The leading UK law firms are now big businesses. All of this is good for jobs and value creation. However, we still see partnership, rather than flotation, as the best model for our business.”

Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at

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