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Bar consolidation continues as St Philips acquires ailing Stone Chambers

Mid-tier sets are continuing to feel the pressure of a squeezed legal market at the commercial Bar as it has emerged that Stone Chambers is to be acquired by national set St Philips Chambers.

Stone Chambers currently has two silks, namely joint heads Elizabeth Blackburn QC and Vasanti Selvaratnam QC, as well as 14 junior barristers and five associate members.

Leading Birmingham set St Philips first launched in the City in 2013, opening in the heart of Bloomsbury during final merger negotiations with Chancery House Chambers in Leeds. Led by Avtar Khangure QC, its City move was a strategic effort to boost its offering in commercial, employment, regulatory, private funded crime, and family work. Now with Stone Chambers, it will add shipping work to its portfolio.

A panel of silks led by Khangure QC has been leading negotiations.

That Stone Chambers has been seeking a union is of little surprise; a spate of exits has seen the chambers’ tenant headcount almost halve in the last two years. According to the Legal 500 there were 31 tenants in 2014 while in 2016 there were 16. However the set has maintained the message that it would continue to operate as a shipping specialist.

Early indications of trouble at the set arose in 2014, when high flying disputes boutique Joesph Hage Aaronson recruited heavyweight commercial litigator Steven Gee QC who served as the head of Stone Chambers.

Since then other departures have included Singapore regional head of chambers Andrew Moran QC, who was appointed to the Singapore International Arbitration Court panel of arbitrators; and Tim Hill QC, who joined 20 Essex Street alongside shipping barrister Karen Maxwell. Other juniors to depart included Henry Ellis, Peter Stevenson and Joseph England to Quadrant Chambers.

Stone Chambers follows similar moves made by other mid-tier sets in recent months. In early autumn 2015, members of London commercial and chancery chambers 11 Stone Buildings voted to dissolve after more than 40 years in operation. The set comprised 40 members, including four Queen’s Counsel (QCs), many of which ended up at multiple sets including Wilberforce Chambers and Hardwicke Chambers. This year also saw the merger of Thirteen Old Square and 3 Stone Buildings to form Three Stone and headed by John McDonnell QC.

Both St Philips and Stone Chambers did not respond for comment at the time of writing.

For more on the commercial Bar, see ‘Set in Stone – testing time for mid-tier sets as elite London sets tighten their grip’