Dvorak’s New World Symphony plays in the background
Picture if you can a slip of a junior clerk with one tie to his name and white socks peeking out from marginally below half mast suit trousers. Yes that was me. Gangly and gormless I entered the world of barristers and clerks wide eyed and was at once bewitched by a host of claret quaffing, Latin speaking, prosaic eccentrics. Strangely I felt right at home.
Coupled to the awakening that my young senses felt in the strange company I found myself thrust into was the complex technological workings of a “modern” office. Barring a brief sojourn decorating retirement homes and a short lived stint in a picture frame factory, I had come to chambers more or less straight from school. I had no expectations of the machinery and mechanical processes that made a clerks’ room tick so when faced with a computerised database, photocopier, fax machine and (wait for it) a mobile telephony device it felt like I was on the bridge of the USS Enterprise.
I had my own personal computer at home a 48k Sinclair Spectrum. This was attached to a television (which used valves) and a tape recorder which took about 10 minutes to launch an application (or load a game as we called it back then) and produced a high pitched squealing to indicate it’s progress. This was but an abacus compared to my own access terminal in chambers which was attached to a server (a big computer than runs the other computers as my senior clerk explained it) running the mighty Pick system. This was in the time before the mouse and all input was achieved through the keyboard. For the very young it was not touch screen, it was a black screen with white text. This may sound a little crap now but then, well it was HAL and Robby the Robot* all rolled into one. Just to clarify it didn’t actually speak. Chambers had only recently switched from a paper based accounts and database system and there were still a large number of A5 record cards knocking around in cupboards in the clerks’ room. One of my first jobs was sifting through piles of old record cards looking for old unpaid fees for the fees clerk to chase, not something I miss.
Whilst we had state of the art database and accounting facilities the Pick system wasn’t ready for an integrated diary. The diary was in fact a 2 page to a day monstrosity which usually fell apart in about September and would spend the rest of the year clinging together using parcel tape and hope. The paper diary caused all sorts of problems, so many that I will further explore them in a future post.
The photocopier was a work of science fiction. You could take a single piece of paper and produce a blurry lined copy within a few minutes of button presses and multiple paper jams. As a junior clerk you often had to produce copious copies of law reports. First you would be given a series of uncrackable codes by a barrister (such as 2 WLR 1987  I didn’t have a clue). These could apparently be translated into specific page numbers in dusty leather clad tomes of legal knowledge which resided in a smoke hazed library. You would be expected to produce 5 copies of each of the 15 authorities he sought to rely on, each individual report ran to about 30 pages on a machine that at peak operation could do about 10 pages per minute. Oh and the case starts in 30 minutes. While you were doing it the senior clerk would inevitably need a cup of tea “and why haven’t we got any chocolate digestives, nip and get a packet. Yeah well I don’t give a stuff Mr Fotheringaye-Smythe’s copying will have to wait”…….sorry drifted off there.
All these technological marvels pale into insignificance when you catch sight of the mobile phone. Imagine a house brick wrapped in a faux red leather case with a modest sized sex toy for an aerial, that was our chambers mobile phone. Even now the memory makes me salivate. As a junior clerk I only got my hands on it when the senior clerk was entertaining clients at lunch and was too involved in complex negotiations# to come back to chambers to collect it. One amazing day I was handed the phone with instructions to collect a brief from CPS and “keep an ear on the phone because Terry or Trev or Bob may have a return for us”. Imagine my joy whilst at the CPS offices when a bingly beep indicated an incoming call. There was a gasp from the assembled CPS lawyers as I struggled to pull the monstrosity from my pocket, ripping the lining of my jacket only slightly ruining the effect. There was indeed a return to pick up from Trev and now thanks to the wonders of modern science I had saved myself a whole 5 minutes walking time and wrecked my only suit.
Newton’s third law must always be obeyed just as for every Ying there must be a Yang. Against the marvels of all this wizardry of modern science there was a sodding great fly in the ointment, the fax machine.
I fucking hated the fax machine. Thermal paper that rolled up and felt like the toilet paper you get in holiday camps. Trying to send a fax and 12 pages would go through at once so the receiver got the name of the case and the barristers signature and none of the body of the vitally important opinion that you were sending. That bloody stupid pink cross that stamped onto the back of the document to indicate it had been faxed. Burning your fingers freeing a paper jam only for it to jam 30 seconds later. It was a big pile of dogs doings that wanted a good seeing to with a cricket bat with 6 inch nails hammered through it.
A modern barrister’s clerk has all of the latest technology at their finger tips. Current software integrates with Exchange and offers a host of automated options that allow instant effortless communications with barristers and solicitors. Law reports can be produced at the push of a few button via virtual online libraries. Huge amounts of documentation can be scanned and e-mailed negating the use of sodding thermal paper fax machines. Mobile phones are the size of a pocket calculator and offer a dazzling array of services which make it the Swiss Army knife of the modern clerk. But there is a little bit of me that thinks that whilst it was bloody hard work way back then, it was all simply magical to a wide eyed junior clerk.
* For the very young again if you don’t know what I am talking about here get on Wikipedia and bloody learn.