The Court of the Clerks’ Room

The Senior Clerk

The senior clerk is the king of all that he¹ surveys. He sits atop the clerking pile and teases and tweaks the slender threads of a myriad complex relationships with clerks, barristers, solicitors and courts. A deific puppeteer who manages, markets and moulds all around him to the greater good of the chambers cause. For anyone who reads Pratchett the senior clerk’s job is very much like that of Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician. It is to ensure that today happens much like yesterday. To gently oil the wheels and remove the burrs so as to keep things ticking along and where necessary to throw those who threaten the status quo into the scorpion pit. Senior clerks have an incredible mental Rolodex (dated I know) of contacts whose specialist skills can be called upon, as all will owe some favour or else can be owed a favour, to deal with some tricky problem. This is the source of all the senior clerk’s power, his own tangled network of contacts and specifically the manipulation of these contacts with his chameleonesque ability to interact with a whole range of people from different backgrounds. From the office junior to the Lord Chief Justice, from the receptionist to the senior partner; all know and like, trust, admire or fear (sometimes in equal measure) the senior clerk. What separates the modern senior clerk from those of yesteryear is the comprehension that this network on it’s own is no longer enough. The modern senior clerk must understand management and business skills which would be alien to those from my early years. My first senior clerk would have laughed raucously at the suggestion of a business plan or a budget. He would have scoffed at SWOT analysis and the pain/gain matrix. He would have been incredibly sarcastic at the suggestion of appraisals and targets and personal development. In contrast I have spent much time of late working on applying Lean principals to the processes that make chambers work. And what fun it has been. Today’s senior clerks often perform a very different role than those from my youth. Chambers are much larger than they were 20 years ago, such massive administrative machines cannot be managed using figures jotted down on the back of a fag packet. A blend of old school back scratching and modern techniques must be woven carefully together to produce the tapestry of skills required by the modern senior clerk.

Even in these modern times of enlightened business systems the senior clerk needs an old fashioned enforcer, someone to do the dirty work that he can’t be seen to do. Someone who can say the things that need to be said but that he can’t say himself. For all this he needs a first junior.

The First Junior

There is a bristling angry presence that lurks in the clerks’ room, bullying and cajoling all into toeing the party line. The first junior is an elemental force of nature that drives chambers along, carefully steered by the senior clerk. First juniors are generally angry; they are angry that they don’t get the recognition for all their hard work, they are angry that they have to deal with the constant inanity of barrister’s behaviour, they are angry about being angry and most of all they are angry that they aren’t the senior clerk. The first junior is both the heir to the throne and captain of the guards.

The first junior is often used by the senior clerk in the role of agent provocateur. When a barrister is making a nuisance of themselves and upsetting the delicate balance of chambers the situation needs careful handling. If the first maneuver was be dragged across the coals by the senior clerk the troublesome brief would have nowhere else to go. Who can you run to for sympathy and a “poor brave little soldier” if he that you would run to is the one that scolded you. If, however, the first junior has a sharp word or five with the barrister in need of correction then said  barrister can run to the safety of the senior clerk’s welcoming arms. The senior clerk will then soothe the worried brow and ask exactly what happened.

Ponsonby-Smythe: Seriously John she has gone too far this time, I will not be spoken to like that by Donna. It’s ridiculous who does she think she is.

John: You are absolutely right we can’t have clerks berating barristers, at least not without good justification. What did you say it was all about?

Ponsonby-Smythe: Well, errm, ah it was…(mutters under breath)

John: Sorry sir I didn’t catch that.

Ponsonby-Smythe: Well its quite silly really, probably not worth troubling you about. (edges to the door)

John: Oh no sir, now I know there is a problem we really need to investigate it fully.

Ponsonby-Smythe: Well if you insist. There was some mix-up over timings and it meant I was a little late for court.

John: Hmmm (long uncomfortable pause) That was that murder case for the new firm of solicitors with lots of high quality work who we have been pursuing for several years who could increase you income by a substantial amount?

Ponsonby-Smythe: (looking at the floor) Yes.

John: (narrows eyes) I see.

Ponsonby-Smythe: But the thing was….I erm…there was this…..(wilts under the laser like stare)

John: The issue of timekeeping at the bar is not a new one and not one I think we need spend any more time on (Ponsonby-Smythe looks up in hope and expectation) I am however concerned about this issue with Donna, we will need to raise this issue and all of the background in a full chambers meeting. (Ponsonby-Smythe wilts) Unless of course you think perhaps this is just a simple misunderstanding.

Ponsonby-Smythe: Oh yes, quite, exactly my thoughts. Passions run high, stress of the job and all that.

John: So we will say no more about it then.

(Ponsonby-Smythe exits to be replaced 5 minutes later by Donna)

Donna: The bloody Ponce was late again and it was for Dingley & Berkley, how long have we been after their work?

John: So what did you say to him.

Donna: I told him I was going to buy him a bloody big alarm clock and see if that could get him to court on time because if I didn’t he would end up losing himself work.

John: Sounds right to me, good job.

First juniors will eventually get to the point where they consider they are ready to move up into the big mans shoes. They are always wrong. To further a career a first junior will usually have to move to a vacant position in another chambers though there are occasional attempts at a coup. These never end well. I have made the transition from first junior to senior clerk and I have advice for all first juniors who are intending to make that leap. No matter what you do, no matter what you think, you aren’t ready and it will be much harder than you can possibly imagine. The buck will stop with you, whatever goes wrong it is down to you to fix, everyone looks to you and expects you to deal with whatever comes up. The pressure is intense. It took me 3 years to get to the point where I felt like I was doing a good job. Trust me it’s hard. One of my old senior clerks told me that in his first month in charge the first thing he did when he got through the door was vomit.

The Second (Third, Fourth etc) Junior

We have our king and our heir and now we need the rest of the court. The Dukes and Earls who are so far in line from the throne that their claim seems negligible. They scurry hither and thither doing some of the less glamorous tasks in the clerks’ room. Some rise and some fall and some stay the same for ever. There can be great harmony in the rank and file. There can also be some sharp cutthroat little sods who want to get on and will do anything to get there. You have to watch them. They are the senior clerks of tomorrow. They caper and clammer for attention from the senior clerk all the while under the watchful eye of the first junior.

The Office Junior²

No court is complete without the jester. A bumbling buffoon who spends his life being bellowed at and berated. A comic relief to the stress and strains of the clerks’ room. The office junior provides a vital role. Most of the tea consumed in chambers comes from the efforts of the office junior. The office junior also provides the senior clerk with a conduit to current trends in popular music, fashion and modern language. It is common practice to force office juniors to change their name if it conflicts with one of the other clerks. It is on the basis that it is difficult for barristers, solicitors and clerks to deal with two clerks with the same name.

John: Right then lad before you make me a brew and bring me the chocolate digestives, lets have a chat. What’s your name?

Office junior: It’s John.

John: No it can’t be. I’m John. Can’t have two Johns. What’s your Dad’s name?

Office Junior: Ian.

John: Good from now on you’re Ian. Now get me a brew and don’t even think about gobbing in it, I know all the tricks.

Ian: (somewhat bewildered) OK

John: Is your hair supposed to look like that or is it still raining?

The Fees Clerk

There is a very distinct sub-species of clerk which operates in quiet corners of chambers. They make numbers dance and twirl across columns of spreadsheets. They understand bookkeeping and accountancy. They are the stewards of the court. The fees clerk has one very specialised skill which sets them apart from the rest of the clerks. They know how to get barristers paid. It may surprise you to know this but there are some amongst the hallowed ranks of the noble profession of solicitors who have difficulty in settling bills promptly. Usually a quick reminder from the fees clerk will produce swift resolution of any late payments there are however some debts which are trickier. The fees clerk somehow gently twists the arm of the debtor in such a delicate and subtle way that the funds are extracted without any bad feeling. Fees clerks are generally quite solitary creatures preferring to perform their arts in privacy away from the throb and hum of the clerks’ room. Without them chambers would gradually grind to a halt and so whilst they closet themselves away they should never be forgotten.

¹ I have used the male pronoun throughout for ease, this is solely because it reads better and not through some deeply grained sexism. In my first clerking role I worked under a brilliant female first junior who taught me much of the dark arts of clerking. In all of my time clerking I have only worked in a completely male clerks’ room for a very short period of time.

² Apparently you aren’t supposed to use the term office junior anymore as it is ageist. To those that say this is the case I say sod off. It is a title not a description of the person.


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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