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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

Court of Protection Practice and Procedure Conference 2016

A comprehensive guide to best practice and current thinking

26 JAN 2016

Clerklife: I've got the power!

Clerklife: I've got the power!
After successfully booking in my first case, I was now deemed trustworthy enough to take phone calls and, very occasionally, if everyone else was too busy and it wasn't a complicated request, I was allowed to book cases into the diary. Shortly thereafter I noticed subtle changes in the behaviour of the barristers. It was as if they had all just realised I worked in the clerks' room. The more senior members of chambers who previously would have just nodded or grunted at me (or, in the case of James St-John1 Ponsonby-Smythe, looked at me as if he had just scraped me off the bottom of his shoe) were suddenly wishing me good morning, or smiling warmly.

The more junior members of chambers were suddenly eager for me to join them after work for drinks at The Pub. A working day for a clerk is an odd thing. You start work at 9:00am and so you need to be there a little earlier to prepare for the coming day. For me, this meant collecting the DX from the local exchange; the DX is a legal courier service where, instead of an address, you have a number.2 I would put the kettle on for the first junior and receptionist/fees clerk, but not the senior clerk - the boss didn't get in until 10:30 at the earliest. I would make sure reception was presentable and that today's copy of The Times was neatly laid out. Normally I would be at chambers for about 8:45am. Most, if not all, solicitor's firms closed at 5:00pm, but barristers' chambers never shut before 6:00. That was because, invariably, between 5:00 and 6:00 there was still a lot of last-minute returning of briefs between sets of chambers. If some emergency cropped up (and they were fairly common) you might not finish at 6:00, and there had been odd times when I had stayed behind for an extra hour or so.

Obviously, being a sensible chap, I started accepting the offers of post-work drinks. I didn't earn a great deal, and free beer was the thing of dreams. I was also really beginning to like the company of barristers. They were all very different, but they nearly all shared one common trait: they had enormously powerful personalities. Some were loud and brash; others comical and fun. Some were more quietly spoken and measured, but all had that certain something that made you want to be in their company. I was drawn to a few of the more junior barristers, and after a number of post-work drinking sessions even began to think of them as friends; a mistake I have never repeated. More on that dark subject some other time.

I started paying more attention to the dynamics between the clerks and the barristers, and realised exactly why my star had risen. The receptionist/fees clerk didn't seem to play a massive role in the day-to-day clerking tasks, but every so often a barrister would come to her desk and whisper gently to her whilst wringing their hands. She would sigh and reach into a concertina folder and produce a couple of cheques, and the barrister would skip away issuing loud and heartfelt gracious thanks.3

1 Which is pronounced 'sinjin'! Who knew?!
2 Not like in The Prisoner, I was never chased by giant white balloons round the DX exchange.
3 Very few barristers under the age of 20 would understand this, but barristers often had to beg the clerks to release the monies they had been paid.

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The most senior of barristers would hover around the senior clerk's desk hoping for a stray brief to land in their lap. More junior barristers would come and have to beg for time to be booked out of the diary. Just to clarify this: the barrister (who is self-employed and is, in theory, master of their own destiny) has to beg the senior clerk (who is employed by the barrister to run his practice) for time off to get married and go on honeymoon (with the delightful Elspeth, who he has been betrothed to since before either of them were born). 

Before I was a gopher, useful in my own right, but I was not a source of work or money and so had little value. Now I was a clerk! I made decisions with a stroke of my retractable pencil which could only decide who got a case and who didn't. I decided to check if my suspicions were right, and ask the only man who would definitely know the answer.

The senior clerk would on occasion, when he hadn't overdone the lunchtime entertaining, give me a lift home. In his vintage English two-seater sports car in racing green, nonetheless! I raised it with him and he told me all.

'They pay us to tell them what to do. If all goes well it's because they are brilliant; if all goes wrong it's because I did a bad job.'

'But that's not fair,' I said.

'Ahh, but even when you've done a bad job, at least in their eyes, they still come back to you to fix it. They know it, we know it, but no-one ever says it.'

I started, 'So without us...', but he quickly cut across me. 'No-one ever says it!'

'Ah right,' I said. I glanced across and saw a wolfish grin spread across his face.

'You just keep doing what you're doing. You're too clever by half, and you're a cocky little sod, and that's why you're turning into a good clerk.'

You could have seen my grin from space.

Follow Not a Barrister on Twitter: @notabarrister

See Leigh Royall's latest update in our Day in the Life series for an up-close and personal view into clerking.

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