Wednesday, 13 December 2006

If you don't like it, sir, you can fuck off, sir.

The Master has told me the apocryphal tale linked to the above title at least twice now. In Times of Yore (and probably still today at some chambers), the senior clerk used to take 10% of chambers' income. Out of this 10% he (always a he) would run the whole operation, including paying the junior clerks, the rent and so on. Even after expenses, The Master reckons that at one of his first chambers, 20 years ago, the senior clerk was probably taking home £250,000 to £300,000. In today's money, that would be quite an income.

With the senior clerk on commission and the junior clerks as his loyal enforcers, the senior clerk had every reason to maximise income and tout his barristers. It was a symbiotic relationship from which both clerks and barristers benefitted. As long as they got on well, anyway. I can't remember when it ran but there was a brief-lived but excellent TV series called North Square a few years ago in which Phil Davies brilliantly played an old-school senior clerk. I remember the series opening with the two pupils arriving at chambers -- one boy, one girl -- and the clerk immediately giving the girl several hundred quid to go and get a haircut and some decent clothes and lose her student look. It was neither kindly nor generous, but rather a self interested commercial calculation.

Many clerks these days are salaried, although I would assume (I certainly can't ask them!) that they are on some sort of commission arrangement. Nevertheless, a barrister's relationship with the clerks will make or break his or her career. I had a depressing conversation over the weekend with a friend I used to work with a few years ago. She had gotten pupillage at a very good left-leaning chambers but had not managed to get tenancy. She ended up with a third six, then 'squatting'. This inelegant term describes a situation where the chambers allows a barrister to remain in chambers on a temporary basis but without tenancy. Last week she was called in and told to clear out, as she had overstayed her welcome and their squatting policy. This is despite getting direct, personal instructions from very good solicitors' firms. The clerks had apparently been trying to divert her instructions to other members of chambers who were tenants.

Or this was how she perceived it, anyway.

Anyway, the apocraphal tale to which I referred is about being sent to far flung courts to do very minor hearings. Apparently, the resistance of one insufficiently profitable barrister led the senior clerk to utter the above memorably respectfully-phrased encouragement to take on the job in question.

The reason this comes to mind right now is that I am just back from a trip to Horsham County Court. Yesterday, I got a call from The Master at about lunchtime. He sounded quite pleased with himself and told me that he thought he'd just managed to avoid being sent to Horsham. I then got another call from him at about 5pm, when, slightly more subdued, he asked me to pop to the clerks room, get a copy of the court guide, copy the page for Horsham and fax it to him at home.

1 comment:

pupilblogger said...

For more comment on the barrister-clerk relationship see Tim Kevan's blog entry here:

http://timkevan.blogspot.com/2006/12/barristers-clerks-master-or-servant_09.html