Monday, 4 December 2006


I had an interesting day of lurking today, this time out at Reading County Court. I have done a lot of lurking in the last three weeks, and I am constantly working to improve my lurk skills.

This is because when I'm not hanging around in the chambers library with not a great deal to do (sorting photos or composing blog entries, perhaps) I'm out and about lurking at the shoulder of The Master or one of his comrades. I have adopted a few policies to help me achieve best practice:

1. Walk three steps behind while carrying bags, unless actually being talked to. Three steps is sufficiently close to be summoned easily to be talked at and also to scoot round and open any doors (see (7) below) even when holding all the bags, yet far enough away to be properly junior. This is particularly important if The Master (I'll use him as an example for now as, even though I haven't seen much of him, he's still the single barrister with whom I have lurked the most) is with a client or someone more important than me. Which means anyone, obviously. The three step rule is engaged through necessity even whilst talking to The Master when walking south down that insanely narrow right hand side pavement of Chancery Lane towards the Royal Courts of Justice. I really feel Lincoln's Inn should be moved a couple of metres to the west.

2. Carry a notebook. I haven't been so far as no-one has mentioned it, but the vexed, pained look that The Master gave me today when the judge started giving an interim judgment at 5.30pm (the hearing started at 9.30am - it was an unually long legal day, i.e. an ordinary day for mere mortals) strongly suggested that he'd have quite liked me to write it down instead of him. He did buy me an egg sandwich for lunch, after all, his look also managed to convey. My suspicion was confirmed when he muttered something when leaving the judge's chambers about having to find me a notebook. It occurs to me that this might also help out with (4) and (5) below.

3. Nod a lot. Doesn't matter who's talking, it works for everyone. Apart from opposing counsel, where a few judicious, well-timed shakes of the head seem to have coaxed that egg sandwich out of The Master today.

4. Don't make eye contact with clients. While The Master is busy writing down what the client says during conferences (barrister-talk for meetings with clients, as opposed to fancy jaunts to L.A.) and looking at his pen and then what he has just written and then the hairs on the back of his hand and then his watch, the client seems to have nowhere to look except at me. If I return eye contact, the client will then invariably start to talk and ask questions at me rather than at The Master, which was getting a bit awkward. The worst moment was with in the cells at the RCJ with a client who really did start to ask me questions, despite my being introduced, as ever, as a pupil. I'm quite confident that neither she nor any client to whom I have been introduced knows what one is and it certainly hasn't been explained to them, but it must at least be obvious from the natural meaning of the word that it is a very junior role.

5. Do make eye contact with clients. The poor souls are usually having one of the worst days of their lives and The Master is a bit preoccupied with the outcome of the hearing to expend energy on empathy. It also eventually gets a bit rude staring fixedly at the table or, today, the front covers of an old Reader's Digest and an even older Saga someone had left on the interview room table.

6. Like a Victorian child, don't speak unless spoken to. And even then a nod and/or general, uncommital expression of vague agreement is usually all that is required of one by the speaker. I butted in with a couple of questions during a client conference today. I immediately realised it was a stupid thing to do, but then amazingly somehow couldn't avoid doing it again a few minutes later. If I'd had a tranquiliser gun with me, I'd have shot myself. Or possibly an actual gun. It was to do with something The Master seemed to have missed and although he quickly skated over the client's answer to me, it was a point he returned to at length later. The first one was, anyway. The second was a genuinely stupid question.

7. Hold doors open. As with nodding, above at (3), this applies to everyone except opposing counsel, for whom doors should be allowed inconveniently to close at inopportune moments, or even be gently and discretely tapped shut with the side of the foot. Or held shut where necessary. Extra egg sandwich points are accrued for resulting spillage of books and papers. 'Counsel' is a term I think I've used several times before without explaining. It's lawyer talk for barristers, as in 'Counsel bought me an egg sandwich for lunch today'. A capital 'C' is used to refer to a particular barrister. The word used to really annoy me on the few occasions I used to buy in counsel for hearings.

8. Make maximum use of the of the opportunity to observe participants who are unaware that you are observing them. My lurk skills would appear to have developed to the point where I can vanish at will. Inevitably, having just written that, I'm now worried that, like H.G. Wells' invisible man, I might one day never reappear. I could be doomed to haunt the RCJ as pupilghost. Anyway, I've found that the most educational thing to observe is probably the reaction of clients to what they hear from other witnesses and the barristers. The barristers presumably have no idea what is going on because (a) they all seem remarkably unsolicitous of clients (as opposed to solicitors, whom they solicit at any opportunity) and (b) to be fair, they are all in a row at the front of the court seating with the clients behind them out of sight. Watching the relationships between different parties in complex family cases is fascinating. Watching the responses to what barristers say and do is chastening.

I've run out of ideas and imagination right now but might try and cook up another couple of rules to make a nice round number. I'm open to suggestions on other rules.

1 comment:

Oberon2001 said...

You were in Reading today - I'm so sorry. Even worse, it was the county court and not the infinitely prettier Crown Court (it's round the corner).

Good tips by the way!