People are strange, when you’re a clerk

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for Jordan’s Family Law and is reproduced here with their kind permission. (The original can be found here)

In the whimsical meanderings of my previous posts I talk a lot about clerks but very little about barristers. I’m not sure when I started to realise there were very different breeds of barristers but so much of my knowledge came through some sort of weird osmosis. Time to put on my best David Attenborough voice and take you through the many varieties of barristers that lurk in chambers.

There are three main types: criminal, family and civil.

Criminal barristers are the rock and roll stars of the Bar. They have swagger and charm aplenty. They are like that friend that turns up two hours late for a party, unshaven and dishevelled but still manages to look cooler than anyone else there. All the girls at the party lust after him and all the guys want to be him. That is your normal criminal barrister. Well, it is if they defend. If they prosecute they are a bit more like the cool friend’s wingman, who only gets dragged along to parties by the cool guy to make him look even better.

As a junior clerk if you find yourself in the pub on a Wednesday night at closing time with a bunch of your guvnors 1 it’s usually the criminal guys and girls who are at the centre of things. They are the party people, when not in court you will find them at The Pub, the capital letters are intended. Every town has The Pub where the barristers and clerks all hang out.

After one legendary Chambers party I found myself in a private member’s club with a very senior criminal barrister until the very small hours of the morning – the licensing laws did not seem to matter. He passed away a few years ago but I will never forget sitting sipping very expensive cognac whilst puffing on a cigar which cost more than I earned in a month.

Family barristers are split into very different sub-sets: children and money. Children lawyers, also known as care bears, deal mainly with cases involving children. They are the social workers of the Bar. Client friendly and more focussed on fair outcomes than crushing your opponent into the floor with devastating advocacy, care bears have to be handled, well, with care. They may come across as fluffy and lovely but to do what they do they have to have a hard edge. They see some of the worst behaviour from ‘loving’ parents that would make your toes curl. Cross them at your peril.

The money barristers are the glory boys of the family world. Sharp suited, cut-throat and merciless. They don’t have the same swagger as the criminal barristers but because they earn much more than the criminal lot they don’t really care.

Civil covers a really broad spread and my experience really only lets me comment on three types: personal injury, commercial and chancery. Personal injury or PI is a broad field in itself, everything from the pile-it-high whiplash merchants, to the clinical negligence/industrial diseases aficionados. In general PI lawyers spend far more time in chambers tapping away at a keyboard or dictating into a voice recorder, churning out endless opinions and pleadings. As a junior clerk I always found PI lawyers to be a wonderful distraction. They would be looking for a reason to put off churning out yet another cut and paste advice on quantum and would relish a chat with an inquisitive junior clerk. I once asked a PI lawyer what the difference between TWOC and a tort was, 30 minutes of skiving off whilst being educated. It turns out a tort is a type of dessert.

Commercial barristers are basically Gordon Gekko. Flash, brash and loaded. The legal stuff they do is nowhere near as much fun as crime but they know how to let their hair down. It’s just not down The Pub, it’s a quick flight to France for Beaujolais nouveau, the day before scooting back for a mareva injunction before the red judge.

For every ying there must be a yang. To counter the sheer force of personality of a commercial barrister you have to have a chancery barrister. They stroll into chambers at about 11 am clad in tweed and acquire a pot of tea. The Times cryptic crossword is obliterated in minutes before it’s time to consider some ecclesiastical chattels point of law dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s brief stint as Lord Protector.

Test Match Special will invariably be providing the background noise to the soft slurp of tea and the shuffling of glasses from bridge of nose to forehead and back. When lunch is called at one it’s time to down tools and wander off for a half bottle of red and a light lunch before returning ready for action at three. After several weeks of such gargantuan efforts, eventually an opinion will emerge which nobody will ever really understand but for which the clerks will charge a sizeable sum.

These vastly differing characters with their individual quirks and styles made life as a wide eyed junior clerk truly entertaining. After 25 years my admiration and adoration has not diminished and my life would be far less interesting if I wasn’t surrounded by barristers.


1 Clerks tend to refer to their barristers as guvnors when discussing them with other clerks, eg you’ll never guess what I had to nip and get for one of my guvnors today.

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All you needed to know about criminal listings but were afraid to ask – Part 2

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for Jordan’s Family Law and is reproduced here with their kind permission. (The original can be found here)

Cue Dick Barton music…

When last we saw our plucky hero (me) I was perilously close to making a right mess of my first criminal listings meeting. Bob, aka ‘big bloke at the end’ had indicated he couldn’t move his plea and fix from Court Eleven to Court Seven which left me possibly facing the wrath of Donna. Read on to end the crippling suspense which I am sure has kept you up at night.

I broke Bob’s gaze and looked down at my list. ‘Okey dokey,’ I said as nonchalantly as I could. I was playing for time until I could come up with a plan. If I couldn’t get the cases organised so that James St John Ponsonby-Smythe (JPS to his clerks) would be very sarcastic and that would make Donna a little tense.

Wait!

That was it: they didn’t have to all be in the same court, I just needed to juggle them up and down. My two cases in Court Seven were first and fourth on the list, so if I just…

‘Can you move that case to the end of that list, Bob?’ I asked as I brought my gaze back up to his. Bob looked down at his scribblings, glanced at several pages and replied, ‘no problem for me’.

‘Any objections?’ piped up the listing officer.

There were none. I had done it! I had managed to get JPS’ cases set up so he could swan majestically from one court to another rather than rushing about in some sort of undignified kerfuffle.

With the stresses and strains of getting the lists set up as Donna had ordered I could concentrate on observing the rest of the meeting. Obviously I had to keep an eye on whether anyone was moving cases up and down in the courts I was in; otherwise, my well-laid plans could crumble like the last digestive in the packet.

There was a lot of bartering. Clerks who wanted to move cases from one court to another would sometimes have to shift two or three cases together and get the assent of several other clerks and the listing officer. There were clerks who had tried plans A, B and C, and were rapidly working towards X, Y and Z to try and get their cases listed to maximise their individual barristers’ earning. I had also figured out that this was what it was all about. The shorter hearings paid small sums of money; £46.40 for a mention, £117.50 for a plea and fix £60 for a sentence, £83 for an appeal against sentence, etc. If you were a good clerk (or a lucky one) and you could organise a list so one barrister could do 10 cases all in the same court, then that barrister would be very happy. Conversely, if you had a barrister with ten cases in the lists but he could only do three then he wouldn’t be very happy.

I was beginning to understand some of what clerking was about. We didn’t just run around after barristers picking up their dry cleaning, paying their gas bills and buying lingerie for their wives; we had to do strange things in back rooms of courts with thin strips of cardboard and a strange mix of juggling, memory feats, persuasion and a slice of luck. There was also a good deal of humour.

The humour in these meetings was either side-splittingly funny, or groan-inducingly bad. In my first meeting there was an appeal listed called Hancock; when someone asked how long it was listed for, some wag piped up ‘half hour’. Julie from King Street North, aka ‘girl with glasses’, wanted to move a case called Schmidt, and Dave from 24 Lion Street responded with ‘nein, das ist verboten’.

There was also a fair bit of cattiness and bitching. I noticed if a clerk made an application which had already been refused or objected to there would be some sotto vice murmerings between a couple of little groups of the more senior clerks. There was a lot going on here and I was going to have to watch my step and mind my Ps and Qs. It was also really good fun. It was fast-paced, there was a lot you had to concentrate on, you had to find solutions to problems and you had to schmooze and brow-beat others and bend them to your will.

Once everyone had made their representations the listing officer bustled out with her strange metal frames and went off to copy the lists. We waited for the copies so we could go back to chambers with the official versions rather than the handwritten scribbled ones we had all produced. Whilst we waited for the lists to come back I saw a handful of clerks shuffle out with a hungry look I knew only too well. They were off for a ciggie. I sprang up and followed them out into what appeared to be a canteen area. We introduced ourselves and chatted about the meetings. Apparently, this had been an easy one. The tricky ones are the Thursday meetings as the courts only list short hearings on a Friday. This means lots more cases to keep an eye on and lots of shifting courts, moving up and down lists, etc. It sounded like great fun to me. Just as we stubbed out our vile, stinky, cancer-inducing sticks we saw the listing officer returning to the bar clerks’ room. I dived in and grabbed a copy of the list and met back up with John. We wandered back to chambers and he asked what I thought of it. I fear I may have reacted like a 4 year old when asked to tell you what they did at nursery. I babbled on and on about the jokes and facing up to Bob and the juggling of lists and on and on and on. Thankfully John was a nice chap and let me carry on until I ran out of steam – which was all the way back to chambers.

I strode purposefully into the clerks’ room and thrust the list under Donna’s nose. ‘Couldn’t get them all in the same list,’ I said, ‘but I got them up and down’. Donna flicked through the photocopied list and nodded.

‘Good job,’ she said. ‘Now get that kettle on, I’m gasping for a brew.’

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All you needed to know about criminal listings but were afraid to ask – Part 1

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for Jordan’s Family Law and is reproduced here with their kind permission. (The original can be found here)

‘Look, it’s easy – JPS has to do the sentence that’s reserved to Judge Jones and the two Plea and Fixes for Goldberg, Singh and Co. You either have to get them all in the same court, or else up and down the lists so he can get between courts.’ That was all the advice that Donna, the first junior clerk,1 gave me before packing me off to the Crown Court for the daily listing meeting. I had successfully attended my first listing meeting a couple of weeks earlier, but that was the chancery meeting. This was different: at least, that was what Donna had said. She had also said a lot about not being stitched up and keeping an eye on Bob from Prince’s Court as he was well known for not playing by ‘the rules’.

I didn’t know what ‘the rules’ were. Not did I really know what I was doing. The senior clerk was entertaining clients2 and so Donna couldn’t fulfil her normal role of keeper of the criminal lists. As far as I could see this seemed to take up most of Donna’s working life. She was always checking lists, then going to listing meetings and coming back and putting cases in the diary. There were all sorts of different criminal listing meetings; daily, weekly, High Court: it was very confusing. I had a basic understanding from my chancery experience, but it seemed the daily meeting was a bit more involved and somewhat more briskly paced.

John from the Equity Court was trying to explain it in more detail as we walked the short distance to the concrete monstrosity that was the Crown Court. ‘The listing officer will read out the list for the next day one case at a time. You need to write it down as she reads it, and we shout out if we have an interest in that case and who we act for. You need to note who is against you in your cases because you may want to move that case and it’s only proper that you consult them. Alternatively they might want to move the case and you want to keep an eye on it in case they are a bit sly and stitch you up when you aren’t looking.’

‘Like Bob from Prince’s?’ I asked.

‘Exactly. But you don’t want to say that too loud. Bob’s alright, but cross him and you’ll know about it. You have to watch him, he’s a sly dog,’ chuckled John.

This still sounded relatively straight-forward. Write the list, shout out who you are in it for, note who’s against you, get your cases fixed up so your barristers can do them, easy peasy. I was feeling pretty confident about this – I didn’t have many cases to worry about and it should be a breeze.

‘Just a couple of things to watch out for. Defence takes priority over prosecution, first defendant over second, third, etc. Some cases are reserved to judges and can’t be moved. Some cases have to be heard by a certain seniority of judge. The case’s original position generally trumps anyone trying to move it if there is a dispute. Appeals and committals are normally left for Assistant Recorders and they don’t tend to mix them with normal plea lists. If you find yourself…’ John tailed off as he looked at my face. All the colour had rapidly drained from my cheeks, and as a half-Irish Mancunian there wasn’t much to start with. My mouth had dropped open and there were beads of sweat forming on my brow. There was so much to remember! What was I going to do?

‘You’ll be fine,’ said John, clapping me on the back, ‘they’re all good clerks, we’ll look after you.’

John pushed open the door to the bar clerks’ room – and it was packed! Nearly all the seats were taken. There were 20 faces glancing up at us as we walked in; I was so panicked I didn’t notice one or two had recognised me and were smiling and nodding. John ushered me to my seat and whispered to me that I had to sit in the same place at every meeting as we took it in turns to start our representation. I was really scared now. Every time John opened his mouth it was to tell me about some new rule which … Wait! Were these ‘the rules’? Was I going to be branded a no-good type who stitched up his follow clerks simply because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing? I have always been a relatively self-confident fellow,3 but I was suffering from a massive crisis of confidence. Before I could get my bearings the listing officer walked in.

She bustled to her allotted seat in the middle of the table, dumped a pile of strange-looking things and muttered a grumpy ‘good afternoon’ to all. Before we could collectively respond she had started. I was still staring at the strange items she had dropped onto the table in front of her. They were 10 metal frames about a foot and a half long and a foot wide. Each frame held dozens of thin strips of white cardboard, most of which contained text which I assumed detailed each case.

‘OK, Court One the Recorder of Manchester with Jones and his mates which I’m reliably informed won’t finish until Christmas. Court Two not sitting. Court Three Judge Barry QC the jury is out on Khan and his mates, he’s sworn the jury in on Smith and that will finish on Friday morning. Court Four Recorder Bleese sitting at ten on the reserved sentence of…’

She kept rapidly firing out courts and judges and cases names, when I suddenly realised that everyone else was scribbling down every word she said. I grabbed my pencil and tried to catch up. As the listing officer moved on to Court Five there was a long list of cases, and each time she read out a name it was punctuated by calls from the clerks around the room.

‘I prosecute.’

‘I’m for the first defendant.’

‘I’m for the third.’

I had no idea who was saying what. I didn’t know who half of the people were. But I did my best to keep a note of it all. I remembered to shout out when it came to my cases and to make a note of who was against me, even if it was recorded as ‘big bloke at the end’ or ‘girl with glasses’. Once the list had all been recited and we had performed our responses4 it was time for the main event. We now went round the table and took it in turn one at a time to put forward our requests. I was third in the queue and so got the chance to see how it worked. Dave from 24 Lion Street wanted to move the sentence of Smith from Court Eight to Court Ten; my mate John was against him and was happy to move Smith as long as the plea of Chubb and Chubb went with it. The other clerks in Chubb had no objection, and so the listing officer would move the little cardboard strips from one metal frame to another which translated to moving from one court to another. Suddenly it was my turn. I had got lucky: two of my cases were in the same court, so all I had to do was move my plea and fix from Court Eleven to Court Seven. I had written BB next to this case, which, in my clever shorthand, was ‘big bloke at the end’. Not knowing his name, I leaned forward and peered in his general direction hoping to catch his eye as I made my request.

He leaned forward and his stare bore into my very soul.5

‘Sorry sahn,’ a deep cockney voice rumbled across the table, ‘can’t help you there – I’ve got a mention in that same court.’

It was then I realised who ‘big bloke at the end’ was.

It was Bob from Prince’s Court.

To be continued…

 


1 There is a hierarchy to the clerks’ room: the first junior clerk is the senior clerk’s deputy and second-most important clerk. There were filing cabinets more important than me.
2 Getting so drunk that I had to go and help him into a taxi at about 6pm.

3 Cocky little b*****d, according to the senior clerk.
4 Being forced to go to church from a young age, it reminded me a bit of church with the vicar leading the way and the congregation mumbling the appropriate responses.
5 Maybe I am being a little dramatic, but it scared the living daylights out of me.

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My first listing meeting

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for Jordan’s Family Law and is reproduced here with their kind permission. (The original can be found here)

‘Get yer jacket on, you’re off to the chancery listing meeting’ [1]

It was Monday and I had a throbbing head, a slightly nauseous feeling and the need for fried food – all of which may have been linked to a weekend, which I recall, started at around Thursday lunch time. [2]

What on earth did the senior clerk mean?

What’s chancery? [3] I thought to myself. I knew the first junior regularly trotted off to court for listing meetings but I didn’t really know what it meant. The ones in the early afternoon always prompted a wild flurry of activity which I didn’t fully understand but usually meant me wandering around the city picking up and dropping off briefs.

The boss handed me a sheaf of paper and talked me through it. There was a list of cases which were going to be given fixed dates over the next 6 months. He had marked the names of the barristers from our set who had been instructed in those cases. I also had a list of dates where each of those barristers was free over the next 6 months. All I had to do was turn up to the listing meeting and make sure the cases our barristers were involved in were fixed for dates they were available. Simple, or so I thought.

I meandered down to court clutching my list and dates with a spring in my step with the prospect of an hour or so mucking about away from Chambers. I was a frequent visitor to court and had rapidly learnt how to navigate my way around the large ugly 1960’s concrete monstrosity. Barristers would regularly forget to take things with them to court. By things I mean all of the accoutrements required by a barrister to perform their job; wig, gown, diary dates, wing collar, bands, collar studs and most hilariously the brief. I never quite understood how you could get to court and realise you had forgotten to bring the very thing you were there for.

I didn’t always go to court to deliver forgotten trivialities (like the case papers), sometimes I had to go to court to find out what was happening. In the early 90’s very few barristers had a mobile phone and email [4] was not yet available so communication was achieved through a pile of 10 pence pieces and the payphone in the robing room. There were 16 courts, each with an average of five cases and with each case having at least two barristers. All of these barristers would be trying to contact their clerks at lunch time and at the end of the day to let them know what had happened in their case and find out what they would be doing the next day. As you can imagine there was always a big queue for the payphone. If the senior clerk was desperate to know whether one of our barristers was going to finish that day or if the case would continue into the next it was often quicker to send me to court to find out. There was also the possibility that the barrister might “forget” to contact the clerks, but that’s another story.

I pushed open the door to the bar clerks room at the court, back then we actually had a room set aside for our use. I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the first to arrive and therefore was in the right place. The listing officer, Debbie, was there and she smiled and said hello. I’d never met her before but she seemed nice. I knew most of the clerks there on sight but there were a couple I hadn’t come across before. John from Equity Chambers introduced me to the guys and girls I didn’t know and then the listing officer indicated it was time to make a start.

I wasn’t involved in the first half a dozen cases and so I could observe the protocol. It was pretty simple; the listing officer read out the name of the case, the clerks who were involved would announce their part, the listing officer would suggest a couple of dates and the clerks would agree a date between them. I could do this no problem. The listing officer read out the next case, I piped up that I was for the plaintiff and my mate John announced that he was for the defendant. Debbie then indicated that this was a 2-day case and proffered three sets of dates; one in May, one in June and one in September. This was easy, my barrister couldn’t do the May dates but was free for the others. I started to indicate this was the case, at exactly the same time John said ‘I can only do the May dates’.

Time slowed. Nobody told me what to do in this situation. If I fixed it for a date my barrister couldn’t do would I be fired? Would the barrister want to see me and demand an explanation for my appalling clerking? Would the first junior be very sarcastic indeed? Would John and I have to strip to the waist and indulge in Queensbury rules to decide the date? Just when I was really starting to enjoy this job it was all unravelling.

‘Can you do anytime in July?’ John asked me; he turned to the listing officer, ‘Debbie if we shift that 3-day case we just fixed for July to May then we could slot it in then’. I scrabbled through my dates and mercifully, yes! Mr Ponsonby-Smythe was indeed free for July. Debbie confirmed that we could shuffle things around as indicated by John (or my hero as I now thought of him). The rest of the meeting went by with relative ease. John walked me back to Chambers and explained what he did and why.

‘This job is easy. It’s about taking problems and making them go away. When it all comes on top you just have to find the way out. There’s always a way out. The other thing you have to do is look after your mates because one day you’ll want them to look after you. Speaking of which you owe me a pint, quick one in the tavern?’

I had survived my first listing meeting but little did I know that a chancery listing meeting was very different to a criminal listing meeting, I would find out soon enough.

 


[1] I have heard proper London clerks refer to these as tea parties. Idiots.
[2] In my youth I could drink vast quantities of alcohol, have very little sleep and still turn up for work able to actually function. When I say vast quantities I mean two cases of Boddie’s and a bottle of black Jack between three of us, on a Wednesday night. Now if I have a couple of glasses of wine and stay up past 10pm midweek I am useless for two days.
[3] Chancery is weird civil law. Nobody understands it apart from chancery barristers. They are a very strange bookish breed of barrister that lives in chambers library and survive by inhaling the nutrients from the dust found on copies of the King’s Bench reports.

[4] Microsoft released the first Outlook in 1992, Hotmail arrived in 1996. I looked it up.

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We are family

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for Jordan’s Family Law and is reproduced here with their kind permission. (The original can be found here)

‘Take this brief to Bill, then nip to Trev as he’s got something for us and on your way back get me a cheese and tomato on white with a bit of salt on the tommies’. I had no idea what two thirds of this sentence meant, so I asked the receptionist [1] on my way out. It turns out that Bill[2] and Trev were Senior Clerks at other barristers’ chambers. I also learnt that our receptionist was a sarcastic bugger because she then went on to explain what a cheese and tomato sandwich was. It was my second week as a baby barristers’ clerk and I was having to learn fast.

There was a bewildering array of modern office equipment. I had a ZX Spectrum at home. It’s tortured squeals as a game loaded via the attached tape recorder still bring a smile to my face. It was, to my mind, cutting edge stuff but was nothing compared to what was on offer in Chambers. There was the computer system which we were all linked up to and through which we could record information about cases and produce fee notes when work was completed, once it had booted up which took several hours. There was the photocopier which rapidly became the piece of equipment I would use more than all the others combined. There was also the fax machine, or as I liked to think of it, the devil’s punishment for all the wrongs I had done in my life. The fax machine jammed, burnt my fingers and ran on thermal paper which appeared to be made of the same material as the toilet paper in the holiday camps to which my parents dragged me and my siblings every August. There was also one of the earliest examples of ‘mobile’ phone. I have used inverted commas because it was mobile in the sense that a mobile home is mobile. You can move it, but you need a motorised vehicle to do so.

Armed with the house brick that was our mobile phone and with a brief tucked under my arm off I toddled for a tour of parts of Manchester city centre that were alien to me.

Bill’s chambers was tucked away in a street that was so tiny as to not even have it’s own name – the planners must have run out of ideas and just chucked a West on the end of it. Up a windy staircase I went and just as I feared I was in the wrong place a familiar sight appeared: there was the name board. Every chambers had a list of its members displayed by their front door for all to see. Some were made of slate, others brass, others hand painted on wood and in modern times in glass and plastic. At the end of the list of barristers names would be a list of judges who had practised from those chambers, and then right at the very bottom of the board was the name of the senior clerk. A strange mystical light appeared to highlight this part of the board. Muted angelic music drifted to me, brought dancing in on an impossible breeze. Well that’s how I remember it. That’s when I thought, I want that.

Overcoming my odd epiphanic moment I wandered in through the front door and spotted the entrance to the clerks’ room. Squeezed into a broom cupboard were Bill, Danny and Bob. I learned that if you were a clerk and you had a monosyllabic name it would be lengthened and if you had a multi-syllabled name it would be shortened. Unless of course your name was Ian. Bill greeted me like a long lost relative and asked how I was getting on. Thankfully after two weeks of working with my senior clerk I had started to understand the cockney language and understood most of what he said. I nodded and smiled through the exchange before handing over the brief that I had been sent to deliver and departed to make my way to Trev’s.

Suddenly I found myself somewhere very different. I was surrounded by shops that appeared to be the size of warehouses but which contained only three items for sale. Then I saw the name board. There were dozens of names, some of which had the suffix QC. I had no idea what that meant but it looked smart. The reception area was the size of the entire ground floor of my chambers. The receptionist looked like one of the girls from Addicted to Love. The clerks’ room was palatial and housed 10 clerks! Trev wasn’t in but his first junior Des was and he quickly introduced me to everyone. He left me with one of the very junior clerks who asked how I was getting on. He invited me out for a curry. I had never had curry but I figured it couldn’t hurt and so we arranged to go out in a couple of week’s time.

Lots of aspects of clerking have changed over time but this sense of camaraderie remains. Clerks look after each other. They show an interest in each other. We need each other. Not many people in the world are barristers’ clerks and we need a support group who understands the very odd job that we do.

I returned to chambers positively glowing. I was part of something. I had a goal, a purpose.

‘Where’s my bloody sarnie, I’m starving.’

I had forgotten the senior clerk’s lunch.


[1] By receptionist I mean administrator, fees clerk, typist and keeper of the petty cash.
[2] The names have been changed to protect the innocent. When I say innocent, I mean as innocent as a barristers’ clerk can ever be.

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Becoming a barrister’s clerk

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for Jordan’s Family Law and is reproduced here with their kind permission (the original can be found here)

‘This is a brief,’ he said, indicating the tatty pile of papers tied up with hot pink string ‘and your job is to get your hands on as many of these as you possibly can’.

That was pretty much my induction. Well that and being shown where the kettle was so I could make the copious amounts of tea that a clerks’ rooms runs on. It was my first day as a junior clerk in a barristers’ chambers. Manchester was the centre of the known universe with the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets at the height of their powers. The red half of the city was about to emerge as the dominant force in football for years to come and I was about to put my first foot on a career path that would define my life for decades.

I had dropped out of A-levels after a year without any real idea of what I wanted to do. After applying for a range of jobs and never quite finding what I was looking for, an advert in the Manchester Evening News caught my attention: Office junior required for barristers’ chambers. That was it. No real idea what the job entailed. After a successful interview, where my dazzling personality must have caught the eye of the senior clerk (either that or he was just desperate), I started work the following week.

After a relatively normal start I suddenly realised I was in some bizarre alternative reality. I was from a roughish area of Manchester, not far outside the city centre. I was not used to a world of Beaujolais nouveau, sports cars, Latin phrases, literary references and a bizarre contraption called a ‘cafetiere’. On top of the strange cultural shift was the language of chambers. When I stopped childishly giggling about briefs there was a veritable smorgasbord of a legal lexicon to learn. A refresher was not a sherbert filled chew and a floater was not an unwanted present in the toilet. What was the difference between a TWOC and a tort? And what on earth was an affidavit? All these questions would gradually be answered as the strange world of barristers seeped unconsciously into my brain.

And then there were the barristers themselves.

One or two were very nearly normal, most of them however were like Withnail on acid. Wildly eccentric, exotic and strange to my seriously inexperienced eyes. I fell in love on the spot. They drank at lunch time, they smoked weird cigars and pipes, and they ate out at restaurants. The only time I remember us eating out was when we went to a Beefeater on the way back from my aunties (I had a huge knickerbocker glory for dessert and it came back to haunt my folks in the car on the way home). Barristers seemed educated, articulate and sophisticated (how wrong first impressions can be!).

I can remember little of these first few weeks other than the senior clerk’s lunch order. He had the same thing every day (on the days when he was in by lunch time). Ham and tomato on a white roll with a packet of plain crisps. I knew there was something wrong with him there and then. Ham and tomato! Never. Cheese and tomato, everyone knows that. He was also a cockney. I knew this because I didn’t understand half of what he said. It sort of went ‘cahm on you irons, lord lubba dahck, free for a pahnd, norvern mahnkey…blah blah the temple’. Little did I know that soon I would understand this outlandish chatter and also be able to converse in this strange language.

I had so much to learn. The truly unique and slightly disturbing relationship betwixt clerk and barrister was still hidden from me. The joys of the listing meeting was but a twinkle in the first junior’s eye. Last minute returns, wigs and gowns, silk’s parties, the hierarchy of the clerks’ room and many other oddities were all as yet unknown. I had taken a peek into the world of barristers and clerks and I was eager to see more, and soon I would.

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The joy of dogs

I found myself in a rather embarrassing situation this morning. A situation entirely brought about by my dogs. However before I describe this unusual series of events I ought first to set the stage.

Nearly eleven years ago we got our first dog, Archie. He was 8 weeks old and the cutest little thing you ever did see.

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We got him as a guard dog after being burgled. My father in law guffawed with laughter at this little fur ball that would protect us from the bad men in the world who wanted to steal my crap golf clubs and my wife’s appalling CD collection. Archie however became a fearsome guard dog. It is impossible to walk within a couple of metres of our house without Archie (Barge, Arch, Archie Bargie and a range of other nicknames) barking a loud baritone bark, which he must have stolen from a much larger dog.

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Irvine Welsh once wrote that when a couple run out of things to say to each other they get engaged, when they have stopped talking about the engagement they run out of things to say and so they get married. Eventually the fun of the wedding day and honeymoon fades and so they start a family, finally the kids grow up and move away and they realise they have nothing left to say and get divorced.

We just got a dog.

We always have something to talk about. Archie became the very centre of our universe and his funny quirks and amusing behaviour became our most rewarding subject of conversation.

Over the last few years he slowed a bit and was less willing to go for a walk. We decided that we ought to get him some company to keep him young and active. We went to the rescue centre, just for a look. We weren’t going to pick one there and then. Then my wife saw her, she pushed herself against the bars for a stroke (the new dog not my wife).

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A couple of weeks later and we had a new companion for Archie. We named her Effie which was short for Euphemia which means beautiful silence. We really were asking for it. She barked constantly in the back garden for weeks.

We have had Effie for a little over a year and she has become better behaved. She and Archie have become incredibly close and she has kept him young and lively.

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We adore them in equal measure. Which brings me to this morning……..

Effie had been ill when I got back from work. When I say ill I mean in a sloppy, brown, smelly way. So when she rousted me from bed at 5-45am I thought perhaps she needed to go outside and soon. Imagine my unbounded joy when on reaching the foot of the stairs there were two new brown, smelly, sloppy surprises for me. I opened the back door to let Archie and Effie out whilst I returned to clean up the mess. Half way through gagging whilst scooping up poo I heard a commotion from the garden. Archie and Effie were barking their heads off at 5-45am on a Saturday morning.

I raced to the garden to see Effie launching herself into next doors garden snarling at a fox which had taken the same route. By way of explanation Effie and Archie hate foxes more than I hate people who walk four abreast and block the pavement or who leave their trolleys sideways on blocking the aisle in the supermarket. Thankfully next door is currently vacant. When I hurled myself over the fence there was no-one to watch. Which was particularly important because I was wearing only a dressing gown and a pair of slippers. The former got snagged on a tree and exposed me to the world, one of the latter fell off in my leap over the fence.

Stop laughing. I haven’t finished.

After adjusting my clothing and retrieving my slipper I scouted around for Effie. I could hear her barking from several gardens away, the chase had obviously continued. But I knew exactly how to get her back. We had a problem training her to recall, the only thing she would come back for was Matteson’s smoked sausage. Now I’m not the sort of weirdo who carries around smoked sausage in his dressing gown just in case he needs to get his dog back from the neighbours garden, but Effie didn’t know that. So I whistled and called for her pretending that I had her favourite tasty treat with me. I should also explain that we treat our dogs like our children and so I am Daddy and my wife is Mummy and that is how our dogs know us.

To recap I am in my neighbours garden at 6-00am on a Saturday morning, the noise I am making has probably woken several of my neighbours who are probably peering out of their windows. What they see is me, bleary eyed and wearing only a loosely tied dressing gown and slippers shouting “Effie come on, this way, Daddy has some sausage for you”.

You can laugh now.

Thankfully I was not arrested. It did however take over an hour to get Effie back. I should have been mad. I should have been furious. I was however just glad to get her back safe and sound. It made me laugh out loud when I realised what had just transpired. That’s the joy of dogs, they make life so much fun.

 

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Christmas eve in the clerks’ room

I wrote this post for the CAM magazine. Please feel free to download it and any other editions that take your fancy www.cam.uk.com

The incessant tapping of the rain on the window was about half a beat behind the throbbing in Steve’s head. It had been his first experience of a chambers Christmas party and he had thrown himself into it with some gusto. He was now paying the price of his Bacchanalian exploits and he wasn’t sure if it was worth it. It was Christmas Eve at Queen’s Court Chambers and Steve as the newest member of the clerking team had pulled the short straw. He wasn’t on his own. Mr Oliver St. John Daniels (or “Jack” as he was affectionately referred to by the clerks) had arrived at nine o’clock prompt[1]. Jack was currently in the library working on some obscure ecclesiastical covenant point for an opinion he was preparing. Steve didn’t really have a clue what an ecclesiastical covenant was but it didn’t sound like a great deal of fun. Jack didn’t present too much of a problem to the very delicate level of hangover care that was required[2] but Steve was not alone in the clerks’ room, Bob was in.

Bob was the senior clerk and right now he was making living with a gargantuan hangover very difficult indeed. He couldn’t believe it when he got in just before nine to find Bob scouring the back pages of the Echo intently. He had never seen Bob in the clerks room before eleven and his heart had sank. Today all Steve wanted to do was grind out the morning and shoot off to the pub at lunch for the hair of the dog and the commencement of four days of heavy festive drinking.  Bob’s presence, however, was keeping Steve from gently resting his head on the brief on his desk which he had been trying unsuccessfully to book on to the computer for the last half hour.

“So, errr, what time do we knock off today then Bob” asked Steve as nonchalantly as he could manage. “The lads said normally on Christmas Eve….”

Bob slowly looked up from the paper and fixed Steve with a weary stare.

“….well normally that we sort of go early…..ish……a bit”.

There was a glacial pause before Bob spoke. Steve could feel the sweat running down the side of his head and he didn’t think this was necessarily linked to the combined effects of his hangover and the fact that his desk was next to the radiator.

“Did I ever tell you the story about when I was a junior clerk” growled Bob, his gaze returning slowly to the paper in front of him. Steve started to answer, paused then thought perhaps he should just sit and wait very quietly.

“I was the tea boy at Fountain Lane chambers. Me and the senior clerk, Tom Wilson, was the only buggers working on Christmas Eve. Bit like you and me now” Bob paused for a healthy slurp of his tea. “A bit like you I thought maybe I was getting away early for Christmas, seems old Tom had other ideas. That old git made me sit there until five to six on Christmas Eve before he finally decided I could go.”

Steve leaned forward in his seat, he saw a glimmer of hope in where this story was headed.

“There I was just buttoning up me coat when the bloomin’ phone goes. Old Tom just sits and waits for me to get it. I answered it and the solicitor on the other end straight away says ‘I need to speak to Tom’. Marvellous thinks I. There I am trying to get away and Tom makes me answer the phone and it’s for him anyway. Well I spun on my heel and made to bolt for the door but something made me stop. To this day I don’t know what it was but as I turned back I saw excitement in Tom’s face. He waved frantically at me to come back in. I unbuttoned my coat with shaking hands. I didn’t have a clue what was happening but it was definitely big………you can breath you know lad, nobody dies in this story”.

Steve exhaled noisily and felt more than a little foolish. Why had he been so gripped and how the hell did Bob know, he hadn’t even looked up from the paper. Before Steve could work out quite what was going on Bob continued.

“So I did a bit of running around doing this and that. Tom made some calls and we got away about an hour later. We had fixed up a conference with one of the silks for the 29th December. I didn’t understand the significance at the time but later on it sank in. This case turned out to be massive, it was the first million pound brief fee. If we had knocked off five minutes earlier we might never have had it. It might have gone to them buggers at Equity Court”.

Steve could feel the adrenaline rush of the story ebb from his body and leave him feeling the full weight of his hangover again. He knew now that he would be stuck here all day. There would be no warm glow of alcohol in his system until long after six. No witty banter with the lads at the Red Lion until he did a full shift here. His shoulders slumped as he resigned himself to his fate.

“The thing is” said Bob, his eyes gliding up from the paper “I don’t think we are going to get any calls about million pound brief fees today”. Steve could feel his spirits starting to rise. “So you may as well get yourself down the pub, hadn’t you”.

Steve leapt from his chair thanking Bob effusively for his seasonal offering. He retrieved his coat from the stand and buttoned it up. He turned to leave and the phone rang. Without thinking Steve reached for the phone with one hand and unbuttoned his coat with the other. “Queen’s Court Chambers, Steve speaking how can I help. The sixth you say, let me just check his diary”.

Bob continued to stare at the Echo as a large grin spread slowly across his face.

 

 

[1] As he did every day

[2] Resting his head on the desk and praying for it to be time to go home

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You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy – Institute of Barristers’ Clerks Conference 2014

Getting up at 5-00am on a Saturday morning to make my way to Leeds didn’t seem like too much of a problem. I had however forgotten the 3 or 4 large single malts I had decided to sink the night before. I was therefore a little groggy as I got to the train station however it appears I was not the only one overindulging as there was a chap sat sipping on a can of Special Brew waiting for the train to Skegness.

I was on my way to the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks annual conference to appear on a panel for an open forum Q & A session. Rather embarrassingly in my 23 years of clerking this was my first conference. In my early years up north the IBC conference was very London-centric. We would have been mocked for being whippet fancying, clog wearing, Northern monkeys and we would have sneered at their Chaz & Dave, £10 a pint, Southern wankery. More recently the IBC conference clashed with my wedding anniversary and me and Mrs NAB had a fondness for taking our big Summer holiday to coincide. I was however finally going to see what all the fuss was about and I was more than a little excited at the prospect.

I arrived to be greeted by the conference chairman the senior clerk of 37 Park Square, Leigh Royall, who I know from way back in my early days. Leigh kindly pointed me in the direction of the mountains of bacon rolls and vats of tea and coffee which went some way to dispersing my slightly woolly headedness. I wandered round the various event sponsors stalls and chatted to a few old friends, some of whom I had not seen for many years. Then without any direction from the organisers some strange hive mentality seized us all and we shuffled towards the first session of the day.

Leigh got us underway with his welcome speech which was witty, warm and blissfully short. Up next was the IBC Chair, Brian Lee of 20 Essex Street, who I had seen last at last years Annual Bar Conference. Stuff got a bit more serious now and Brian whipped through some of the problems that the modern barristers’ clerk has to face. Alistair MacDonald QC the vice chairman of the Bar took over the reins and brought more meat to some of the bones outlined by Brian Lee. For those who were in any doubt ours is a profession under massive strains brought about in no small amount by governmental “austerity” cuts and a rapidly changing market place.

Then it was time for the main event, the open forum! Well it was as far as I was concerned as I was on the panel. I was in fine company; Alistair Macdonald QC has stayed on to lend his view, Annabel Thomas from Enyo Law brought the view of the solicitors profession, Taryn Lee QC brought her fabulous shoes and dazzling smile (she knows a bit about family law too) and acting as moderator was Jayne Drake the senior clerk of St. Paul’s Chambers. Jayne wasted no time in introducing the panel to the rather hungover looking delegates. All was going as expected until she outed me! My secret identity had been stripped away and I felt naked and ashamed. Actually most people knew who I was so it wasn’t really a proper unmasking but it was fun watching Jayne squirm as she hadn’t run it past me first.

The first few questions passed me by and then Jayne pushed a question about the plight of the junior Bar my way. I’m a bit like Pringles, once I pop I just can’t stop. I rabbited on for a fair old while about self promotion, social media, public access and different ways to use vinegar to remove stains and odours. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, I was on my soap box and they were going to have to drag me off stage to shut me up. Thankfully for all assembled I ran out of steam.

In the short break for coffee I found myself in several fascinating conversations about the use of social media as a marketing tool. I was swapping war stories with the great and the not so good and having a jolly nice time. Why on earth had I waited 23 years!

With my contribution to the event as a speaker over I could settle in and relax to enjoy the rest of the conference. The next session gave us a delightfully entertaining speech from Robert Webb QC. There were too many highlights to mention them all but two classics stood out for me:

“brief fees marked on back sheets gave subtle bragging rights in the robing room”
“barristers, if you can’t market yourself then basically you’re a prat”

This speech brought back many happy memories of the way life used to be for barristers and clerks and gave me a lovely warm feeling all over. There was just time before lunch for a brief presentation on BARCO by Paul Mosson. It was very interesting if not quite as entertaining as Robert Webb QC. The escrow facilities offered by BARCO are drawing considerable interest from solicitors and this is a service which will be used by many as it’s benefits become more widely known.

Lunch brought a chance to get to press some more flesh and chat to clerks from Bristol, Hull, Northampton, Leeds, Manchester and that London. Everyone was keen to share ideas and stories and there was a wonderful buzz to the whole affair. The food was bloody good.

With barely time to draw breath we were into the afternoon workshops. I decided to sit in on Marketing your Chambers for the first session. This was led by Catherine Bailey from Bar Marketing and Hayley Eustace of the Legal 500. Both speakers were knowledgeable and enthusiastic and offered gems of useful information. There was another brief break for afternoon tea before we plunged into the final workshop. This time I wanted to see what the young ‘uns were up to so I decided on the Evolution of the Junior Clerk.

A quartet of sharp suited, tieless, fresh faced clerks faced a keen audience. Leigh Royall quipped later that it was good that One Direction could make the conference and I concurred with his pithy assessment. They all looked so young! Never judge a book by it’s cover. These lads were bright and sharp as a tack, even after a very late one enjoying the many pleasures of Leeds by night. Andrew Barnes of Wilberforce Chambers preached the importance of preparation and courtesy when dealing with fixing cases, Dan Sullivan of Tanfield Chambers waxed lyrical about the importance of networking and business development, Sam Collins of St. Philip’s tackled the thorny issues of fee negotiations and managing barrister’s expectations and Marc Goddard of Stour Chambers gave a more senior view of what makes a good junior clerk.

The future is bright if it’s in the hands of savvy, eloquent junior clerks such as these. To paraphrase Wellington I don’t know what other senior clerks think of them but by God they frighten me. Our conference chair closed proceedings and off we all dashed to the pub.

Things started slowly. A chat, a pint, a joke. Some bloke in a cat costume. Another pint, more jokes, more chatter. Then I was thrust into the company of the young ‘uns. A flock of quick talking, hard drinking baby clerks surrounded me and ushered me towards some sort of carousel of multi-coloured shots. Of course I had to participate, I was notabarrister. This sort of thing should be right up my alley. The fact that these lads were half my age and possessed of livers which had not had as many years of abuse did not cross my mind.

“You’re out now”
“You can stay with us, we’ve got an apartment”
“Nah you can’t get the train, you’re out now”
“Down that, you’re out now”

It appeared that my plan to get the train back was rapidly changing as I was now “out”.

Several pints and a couple of bars later and things had got a little blurry. I seemed to have lost my Fagin like following of young cockney urchins and with it my bed for the night. Sauntering into the next bar brought me back into contact with familiar faces. My bedless plight was quickly resolved again as another helpful sole pledged their floor or sofa. The alcohol evaporated from my glass as there was no conceivable way I was still drinking that quickly. Minutes passed in seconds and suddenly I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces.

It was 1 am, I was in a three piece suit, in the middle of Leeds, more than a little merry, I had lost all my mates and I had nowhere to sleep. Oh dear, thought I with a giggle.

As if by magic the BarSquared lads appeared. They steered me through the next few bars where we managed to catch up with the remaining hard drinking clerks. At some point we may have been asked to leave somewhere for dancing on the tables. I can neither confirm nor deny this but it wouldn’t surprise me. Following a hastily consumed burger I collapsed on a hotel room floor where I slept the sleep of the extremely inebriated.

The following day was painful but it hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for this truly fantastic chance to spend some time with a congenial and hospital horde of barristers’ clerks. IBC 2015 can’t come soon enough.

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Do barristers need a chambers?

I read an article in Solicitors Journal titled – Do we need barrister’s chambers? The piece is by Adam Makepeace who is the practice manager of Tuckers one of the countries largest criminal firms of solicitors.  I’m going to steer clear of the argument over the Criminal Bar’s “deal” with the MoJ, which forms the background for the piece, as frankly I don’t know enough about it. Instead I want to focus on what the article is really about and this is contained in the last few paragraphs and the title of the piece.

The title is a little misleading. I think it should really read – if barristers didn’t spend so much money on overheads they don’t need then they could share some of the fees they get paid for doing the advocacy that we work hard to get and then have to farm out to them as they have got the expertise that we need to use, well at least for now because soon we will just share work between ourselves and cut out the Bar altogether. That however isn’t nearly as snappy a title so I can understand why the writer went for something shorter.

Why do criminal solicitors brief barristers? There are three reasons.

The first is the expertise of the Criminal Bar. As Adam points out the increase in number and quality of Solicitor Higher Court Advocates (HCA) has taken some time and there are probably still not sufficient numbers of exceptional HCA to undertake the most challenging and complex of cases. Solicitors need to have a pool of experts to send these cases.

The second is client choice. Some clients will request a specific barrister. Repeat (alleged) offenders and those from unfortunate families who seem to find themselves the target of malicious prosecutions may have a chosen brief or briefs¹.

The third is as temporary staff or agents. If, on a particular day, a firm has 5 HCA who are all in court and the firm picks up another case they may need to return the brief to a barrister. The vagaries of court listing with warned cases, last minute additions and overrunning trials can cause havoc with a firms diary and there will always be a need to outsource work often at short notice.

In the first two scenarios a firm would almost certainly still require there to be criminal barrister available to take these cases. In the third scenario firms cross-referring clients to each other could well be a possibility. There would however always be that fear that the firm who stand in as agent may convince the client that a transfer of legal aid may be in order. Barristers can’t do that and that has always been a big selling point in briefing barristers as agents.

Let us assume that no solicitors firms will pinch each others clients and they all live happily together covering each others cases². That still leaves solicitors needing to brief barristers for some cases. Do those criminal barristers need a chambers?

The answer is – No, Yes, Maybe.

No – they don’t need a massive property to house all of the barristers. A clerks/admin room and a storage/coffee room could potentially suffice.

Yes – they do need an administrative staff. Part of the attraction of a barrister’s chambers for solicitors is the single access point for many barristers. One phone call to a clerk can give you access to anything from half a dozen all the way to a gross of skilled specialists. If a solicitor is desperately trying to find cover for a trial which has just been added to the list is it easier to make one phone call to potentially access 50 barristers or 50 phone call to access 50 HCA.

Maybe – some chambers are already moving away from the traditional setup and moving to a more virtual presence. Maybe the chambers of the future won’t have a physical office space. Maybe the admin will mostly be run by Max Headroom type virtual clerks. Maybe you won’t even have to call the chambers, maybe you just think it and a barrister is booked. Whatever happens there is always, even with the myriad of technological marvels available, a need to have a real person to talk to. Clerks or Practice Directors or Team Leaders or Cutting Edge Legal Facilitators³; it doesn’t matter what you call them but there will be a time when you need one.

One final thought on referral fees. There is reference in Adam’s piece to barrister’s paying 20% of their fees in expenses. That gives them a profit margin of 80%, not bad. However this also includes no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension, no guaranteed income. The 20% quoted is probably a fair average in terms of chambers expenses but then barristers have other running costs; travel, accountants, legal reference materials (alright it’s probably just Archbold but it isn’t cheap), practising certificate, professional indemnity insurance etc. Solicitors criminal firms have average profit margins of 5-6%, at least according to the MoJ’s impact assessment on the legal aid cuts (which they then set at 17.5%). It is therefore easy to see that when solicitors need to outsource advocacy, from a simple financial perspective, it is far more attractive to brief HCA as they can share the fee. For barristers this is strictly verboten as this deemed to be a referral fee.

I don’t like referral fees. It’s paying for work. It means work doesn’t necessarily go to the best person for the job, it may well go to the one prepared to do it for the least amount of money. That to me just doesn’t seem right.

 

¹I could probably say something about client choice but that would be countered with the late returns argument which would be countered with warned lists/overrunning case. It’s all a bit boring so we will just leave it there.

²Probably whilst riding to court on unicorns across rainbow bridges whilst drinking ambrosia from Kelly Brook’s bra.

³@jezhop

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