What is a barristers’ clerk?

It occurred to me that whilst I have described all sorts of details about how barristers’ clerks interact with those around them and some of the trials and tribulations they go through in their working life, I have never actually explained what a clerk is. Contrary to popular belief we are not modern day madams or pimps, I prefer the description consigliere. There is very little written about what a clerk actually does. Google it and see what you get, not a lot is the answer. There have been various dramatic representations of the barrister’s clerk, most notably Henry who was Rumpole’s clerk, the frankly terrifying Peter from North Square and the Machiavellian shadowy figure of Billy from Silk. These are all however caricatures of the real clerk.

The seminal text on clerks was written by John Flood in 1983, Barristers’ Clerks the Law’s Middle Men is an encyclopedic exploration of the role of a clerk. It should, in my humble opinion, be compulsory reading for all clerks and barristers. Whilst much of the content of this fabulous book is now a little dated  it does provide a wealth of information of the history of the profession. Some may sneer at my indication that barristers’ clerks are professionals however in my view it goes beyond that, it is a calling. It is a way of life that permeates everything you do and alters your entire perception of life.

John Flood produced a lesser known paper in 2007 which updates his original book somewhat. This gives a far more up to date snapshot of the role of the clerk and is superbly titled “He’s Fucking Marvelous” – The Fall and Rise of the Barristers’ Clerk. This later piece hints at the potential changes in a post Clementi world and explains how some chambers tried to phase out clerks to be replaced by Chief Executives and Practice Managers who came from a non-clerking background. In general this didn’t work hence the fall and rise in the title.

There is also a little known publication about the magical world of barristers’ clerks which is taken from a speech given to the Barristers’ Clerks Association* in June 1971. According to the foreword the speech was given by Mr. S. G. Newland (the President) to students of the Association but was attended by many other members “anxious not to miss an opportunity of listening to him”. I can understand why. The speech is remarkable and truly describes what being a barristers’ clerk is all about. There is a quote within from a text dating back to 1775 which describes the role of John Lamb the clerk to Mr. Salt K.C.:

“He was at once his clerk, his good servant, dresser, his friend, flapper, his guide, stop watch, auditor, treasurer. He did nothing without consulting him, or failed in anything without expecting and fearing his admonishing. He resigned his title almost to respect as a master, if his clerk could have ever forgotten for a moment that he was his servant”.

That is it in a nutshell. It does however require further explanation and for this I am extremely grateful to Mr. S. G. Newland. I haven’t directly quoted all that he wrote for the sake of brevity but if you get the chance to read the full text it is wonderfully poetic. I have also only used the male pronoun for simplicity as I got bored of editing the original by typing he/she, his/her etc.

  • He was at once his clerk – Everyone who wanted the services of a barrister would have to go through his clerk. He would agree the fee for the work, arrange for the work to be completed, collect payment and bank the fee.
  • His good servant – Many barristers still regard their clerks as their servant and if called upon to do some menial task it should be done with good heart as it is part of the tradition.
  • His dresser – Ensuring your barrister is properly robed and has a good supply of clean collars and bands.
  • His friend – The relationship between a barrister and his clerk often is most remarkable. Thrown together so constantly as they are, a bond grows up between them is difficult to describe – it has to be experienced.
  • His flapper – At the time wigs would have been powdered and would need flapping to remove excess powder.
  • His guide – He told him where to go and how to get there.
  • His stop watch – He told him when to go.
  • His auditor – He supervised his finances.
  • His treasurer – Always have £20 ready for when your principal suddenly says “good heavens, I’ve got no money”.
  • He did nothing without consulting him – Whether the decision is trivial or momentous: “Should I give up this type of work? Am I getting fat? Should I apply for Silk?”.
  • He resigned his title almost to respect as a master, if his clerk could ever have forgotten for a moment that he was his servant – Never forget your place. Nobody knows where the line is, but you will immediately know if either you or he steps over it.

What is amazing about this description and explanation is how relevant it still is today. I have never flapped a wig, I was also mightily relieved at this explanation as I thought a flapper was something else entirely (oh no wait that’s a fluffer). All of the other tasks I have done and still do and are still applicable to modern day clerks.

Expanding on some of these points I can perhaps provide a little more detail about how it works in practice. The point about performing menial tasks is perfect starting point. You may think this means just that; it can however mean something mind-wrenchingly bizarre. A fellow tweeting clerk recently recounted a story from his early days about having to stand in a toilet window and pretend he was indulging a spot of onanism. This was in response to a complaint from the chambers across the road whose members could apparently see the silhouette of a self indulgent person using the facilities for a purpose beyond their design. I once had to go lingerie shopping for a barrister’s anniversary present to his beloved wife, not fun when you are a shy inexperienced 18 year old. A world of lace, silk, bras, briefs, thongs and (deep breath) suspender belts was far too much for a delicate soul such as I.

Due to the reduction in the need to wear wigs and gowns the requirement to find collars and bands is less of an issue than it used to be. Those clerks who have barristers with criminal practices will doubtless disagree as will those who clerk in London rather than the provinces, the difference between the two is enormous and worthy of its own post. I do fondly recall the panic of rushing round chambers rooting through wig tins looking for a clean 17 & 1/2 inch collar for Mr Ponsonby-Smythe who was due on before the red judge in 10 minutes. Studs! You could never find any collar studs, they were like gold dust. I recall that at one chambers I worked we bought a cheap travel iron so that we could ensure bands were crisply pressed for court. There would always come a time when you had to send a barrister off to court in a nasty yellowed collar which you had pinched from the only wig tin you could find and you always felt like you had let them down.

I have always enjoyed telling a barrister where to go. It is one of those wonderful small victories a clerk has when explaining to Mr Ponsonby-Smythe, who two days earlier tore said clerks ear off for sending him to court in a yellow collar, that he has a case in Carlisle tomorrow and no there isn’t anyone else to go and yes it’s for one of his really good solicitors and yes I know exactly how far it is and what time he has to get up (because said clerk looked it up and had a really good laugh about it).

Unfortunately try as we might clerks back through time have been unable to properly explain to some barristers the unpredictable nature of travel and the need to allow enough time. It is therefore often difficult to perform the role of stopwatch especially when dealing with someone who thinks that a train that arrives at 10-29 is ideal for a hearing that starts at 10-30.

Barristers are like the Queen, they never carry money. A good clerk always has a wedge just in case Mr Ponsonby-Smythe needs to get a taxi to court (his train having arrived 20 minutes late thus making him 19 minutes late for court and therefore in a bit of a hurry). I have had to run to a restaurant, where a senior member of chambers was wining and dining a new prospect, to pay the bill as he had “left his wallet at home”. The same member of chambers often needed his telephone, gas and electric bill urgently paying at the post office as he had “sent a cheque in the post” which surprisingly never arrived.

There is a reference to the roles of master and servant and I have covered this oddity in a previous post. It can seem strange to an outsider but it works. I once had a stand up row with a junior member of chambers over a brief I took on late in the day. The barrister had arranged  some social event as at 4-00pm their diary was still empty. I had taken a case at 4-15pm and proudly dashed off to inform the lucky recipient. I was met with a very unhappy visage and an audience of 3 or 4 other barristers. As I presented the brief I was met with the phrase “how the bloody hell am I supposed to prepare that”. I shuffled out of the room reddened and angry, and I bided my time. When the barrister came into my realm I waited until the senior clerk was off the phone to be sure I had my audience and asked why the barrister wasn’t happy about doing the case. The cocksure barrister suddenly became somewhat meeker and mumbled something about a dinner reservation. I exploded in righteous indignation “you pay me to find you work and then complain when I do it”. I glanced at my senior clerk and watched the merest flicker of a smile flit across his lips, confirmation that I was in the right. Barristers pay clerks to tell them what to do, they may not always like it but that is what we do.

Having read the last few paragraphs you may have assumed that I dislike barristers; nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. S. G. Newland was entirely correct. It is a special bond that really has to have been experienced to be understood. Despite the seemingly odd hierarchy it all works in a wonderful symbiotic bubble of mutual understanding. I have nothing but respect for barristers. Their ability to work incredibly long hours, sacrificing precious time with friends and loved ones to read vast amounts of complex paperwork, retaining the salient points for only as long as is needed from one case to the next.  They are truly remarkable and bloody infuriating in equal measure.

What makes a good clerk? Clearly someone who can follow the guidance of Mr. S. G. Newland. A good clerk is subservient or strict to the point of draconian as and when the need arises. A friend in times of trouble, a valued adviser when direction is required, a money lender and an accountant. Someone who knows their place and knows exactly when to explain precisely what that means.



* The Institute of Barristers’ Clerks was formerly known as The Barristers’ Clerks Association. It was formed in 1922 and is the professional body for barristers’ clerks in England and Wales.


About notabarrister

Barrister's clerk of many years. Keen watcher of all things post LSA. Can't play golf very well. Likes beer and pies. Follow me on Twitter if you fancy @notabarrister
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