One question I am often asked is “how do you become a barristers’ clerk?” not “why” which to my mind would seem a more appropriate question to ask. When I first started clerking the most common career path was to start at the bottom and work your way up. Now there are many different routes available to those who wish to become a clerk. As times have changed so has the clerk’s role. There used to be only two types of clerk; senior clerk and junior clerk. Now there are many variations on the originals, clerks with very specific responsibilities for some portion of the smooth running of chambers. There are fees clerks, marketing clerks, conference clerks, team leaders, CEOs, practice managers, directors of clerking and even the lesser spotted warbling clerk. The mind truly boggles.
This wide range of new roles requires different skill sets from those of the traditional tea boy done good. It is now possible to become a clerk without necessarily having done the traditional apprenticeship of yesteryear. I personally think that if you want to understand the whole job that you should start at the bottom and work your way up but I can also see how those with different experiences can ultimately add to the clerking profession.
Back in the mists of time all barristers were based in London and traditionally all clerks originated from three families of market traders from the East End¹. New clerks would normally be sourced from distant branches of the aforementioned three families. A senior clerk’s second nephew twice removed on his mother’s side by marriage had just left school and was looking for a job and have you got anything at the moment. Poor Trev/Bob/Dave would take the scrawny scruffy distant relative and shove him up a chimney in the Temple and hope that when he came out, by some strange clerking osmosis, he would have learnt enough to be of some use. It was also hoped they would have ditched the ghastly white socks.
Young Baz/Daz/Chaz would be expected to do a whole host of menial tasks whilst slowly learning new skills. These would be as diverse as lighting the fires, making tea, waking up old Mr Fortesque when he nodded off in the library, fetching Mr Ponsonby-Smythe from the wine bar as he was late for court and a host of other exciting jobs. Eventually Young² Baz/Daz/Chaz would be allowed to touch the diary though he wouldn’t be allowed to write anything in it, just touch it. If he managed to make his accent into something vaguely recognisable as the Queen’s English he would possibly be allowed to speak to people.
As barristers realised there was a world outside of London they gradually moved out of the capital and set up chambers across the whole of England and Wales. Usually the new chambers would recruit a proper London clerk luring them with the holy grail of 10% clerks fees. There was also the promise of a cost of living which appeared to be at pre-war rates when compared to London. It was not really viable to rely solely on the extended families of the senior clerk, as to drag young Baz/Daz/Chaz to the wilds of the frozen north³ was not an option. Slowly but surely the gene pool of clerking grew.
There was much snobbery in clerking, though it has been ground slowly down by the shifting sands of time, and some of those who originated in the Temple still look down upon those who did not. I was not born within the sound of Bow Bells nor do I know the lyrics to all of Chaz and Dave’s back catalogue. I pronounce my aitches and try as I might I cannot make grass rhyme with arse. In short I may well be deemed a lower class of clerk. I do however have one saving grace, all of the senior clerks I have ever worked for all started in the Temple. Because those most venerable of clerks who have been around for some time still originate from the three families then in all likelihood I have at some point in my career worked with someone related to them. That makes me practically family (please don’t read that last word in an Eastenders voice, too late).
If you are considering a career in clerking or if you have second nephew twice removed on his mother’s side by marriage who has just left school and is looking for a job then I can heartily recommend clerking. You work long hours and get little in the way of thanks. The wages aren’t great until you get to first junior level and that can take years of hard graft and a healthy chunk of good luck. Barristers can be the most difficult, infuriating and capricious swines to work. It’s stressful, it will leave you with an alcohol dependency and you will wonder why on earth you do it. You will never be bored, you will meet some amazing people and some incredible characters. If you like people and you work hard, can think on your feet and can pick yourself up when you are knocked down you will be one of a very small number of the population who can call themselves a barristers’ clerk.
To answer the question that gives this piece it’s title I would have to rely on my own personal experience. How did I become a clerk, well that’s a subject which needs it’s own blog post………