There is a mighty presence at the epicentre of the fundamental workings of every clerks’ room. It is a cruel deity which can cause delight and despair in equal measures. It’s fickle twists and turns are the metronomic heartbeat that every clerk strains to hear, striving to balance the whims of barristers and solicitors alike. Its capricious nature may appear to the outsider to bring only chaos but the very best clerks can see the patterns in the swirling anarchic vortex and control this omnipotent presence.
It is the diary.
To be a successful clerk you have to understand how the diary works. I don’t mean the mechanics of cases being entered, transferred and deleted. I mean the subtleties of understanding what can happen in the next two weeks, the next day, the next hour, the next minute. The diary is constantly changing as cases are adjourned or settle, over or under run. Clashes are common and, providing solicitors are kept informed of any issues, the best option is not always to switch counsel immediately. A barrister may be starting a 6 week case and have another case listed which clashes at some point halfway through the longer case. The lengthy case may go short, the judge may decide not to sit on the day that the clash occurs, the shorter case could end up being adjourned. The possibilities are seemingly endless. The skill of the very best clerks is in managing these clashes and making educated predictions of likely outcomes and planning accordingly. Successful clerks manage to keep solicitors happy by juggling their requirements and the vagaries of a shifting diary with consummate ease.
Managing the diary has become far easier with the widespread use of computerised diaries. When I were but a slip of a lad there were no such luxuries. As I mentioned in a previous post the diary was an enormous 2 pages to a day leather bound monstrosity. In about October the most junior clerk was always given the job of drawing the lines delineating each individual barrister’s section of the new diary for the coming New Year. The sections would then have the initials of the appropriate barrister endorsed in the margin working from the most senior at the top left to the most junior at the bottom right. Each working day of the year had to be completed in this way which was an onerous task which left the writer with a clawed hand for several weeks after the Sisyphean task was completed.
The paper diary caused no end of problems. Only one clerk at a time could book a case. If a call came in and one of the other clerks was in mid call to solicitor client you had two choices:
1. Call the solicitor back when you could get your hands on the diary.
2. Lean over your colleagues shoulder and thumb through the diary.
Option 1 left you with a big pile of messages to return on busy days. Option 2 presented the risk of physical injury when the clerk using the diary stabbed you with their pencil to stop you interfering with the booking they were taking.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention the diary was written in pencil. If you needed to transfer a case from one barrister to another you wrote the details in the new barrister’s diary and then erased the entry from the original barrister’s diary. Working in pencil meant that most clerks worked with their sleeves rolled up or else risked dirty cuffs and a thick ear from their mum/wife/husband/partner/FWB etc.
Criminal barristers would take a copy of their diary to court in order to fix a case around their availability. The Friday lists at the crown courts are traditionally plea and fix days (now Plea and Case Management Hearing or PCMH days) where dozens of cases are heard with a view to fixing trial dates. This would mean the most junior clerk taking the diary on a Thursday afternoon and photocopying several copies of the diary in preparation for the Friday. At the same time first junior clerk would be trying to “do the diary” which is the complicated process of allocating all of the cases for the next day to the available barristers. On a Thursday for Friday’s lists this would often be a gargantuan task involving gathering all the crown court lists together, assessing the requirements of the various instructing solicitors, the positioning of each case in the various different court rooms and the availability of the barristers in chambers. The conflicting needs of the first junior and the most junior clerk could result in frantic dashes between the photocopier and the increasingly stressed first junior’s desk.
Whilst organising the next day’s diary there would be some cases which one chambers or another could not cover. Sometimes this would be due to a case unexpectedly running over at the eleventh hour or a court list making it impossible for a barrister to be in two places at once. Often you wouldn’t have the right sort of barrister available; not senior or experienced enough, not the right sort of personality for the client or simply someone that the solicitor didn’t rate highly enough. Cases would fly between different chambers as clerks shifted and twisted the diary to craft a jumbled mess of cases into an ordered plan which met the needs of all involved.
The most junior clerk would run from chambers to chambers collecting and dropping off briefs. The first junior would call in and offer favours in equal measure to ensure that all would go well for the next day. The senior clerk would oversee matters, offering words of encouragement like “where’s my bloody tea” and “don’t forget Mr. Forbes has to do that sentence in Croydon, we have to keep Balderdash, Dodgy and Co happy” minutes after the first junior had just returned that particular case to another chambers. Sometimes however the senior clerk would show his magical skills and pull a rabbit from a hat. At 5-55pm Mr Ponsonby-Smythe would call to say his jury still hadn’t come back and the judge had declined to release him. His next day would be neatly arranged with plea and fix, mention and sentence hearings galore and the diary would be like the engine of the starship enterprise, if it was pushed anymore it would blow. The first junior would be sweating and swearing in a blind panic and rage that left a blast radius of several square miles. With things balanced on a knife edge the senior clerk would, with great aplomb, make the diary dance to his or her tune. A seemingly impossible situation where solicitors and judges would potentially be screaming for the heads of both Ponsonby-Smythe and the senior clerk would be transformed in a few magical minutes into a sea of tranquility.
How it was done was never clear but a good senior clerk always kept one eye and one ear on what was going on in the most manic of situations regardless of how much “entertaining” had been done that afternoon.
After a day like that the senior clerk would again show why they were in charge by declaring “right its been a tough old day who fancies a pint, I’m buying”.