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24 JUL 2015

Clerklife: My first listing meeting

Clerklife: My first listing meeting
‘Get yer jacket on, you’re off to the chancery listing meeting’ [1]

It was Monday and I had a throbbing head, a slightly nauseous feeling and the need for fried food - all of which may have been linked to a weekend, which I recall, started at around Thursday lunch time. [2]

What on earth did the senior clerk mean?

What’s chancery? [3] I thought to myself. I knew the first junior regularly trotted off to court for listing meetings but I didn’t really know what it meant. The ones in the early afternoon always prompted a wild flurry of activity which I didn’t fully understand but usually meant me wandering around the city picking up and dropping off briefs.

The boss handed me a sheaf of paper and talked me through it. There was a list of cases which were going to be given fixed dates over the next 6 months. He had marked the names of the barristers from our set who had been instructed in those cases. I also had a list of dates where each of those barristers was free over the next 6 months. All I had to do was turn up to the listing meeting and make sure the cases our barristers were involved in were fixed for dates they were available. Simple, or so I thought.

I meandered down to court clutching my list and dates with a spring in my step with the prospect of an hour or so mucking about away from Chambers. I was a frequent visitor to court and had rapidly learnt how to navigate my way around the large ugly 1960’s concrete monstrosity. Barristers would regularly forget to take things with them to court. By things I mean all of the accoutrements required by a barrister to perform their job; wig, gown, diary dates, wing collar, bands, collar studs and most hilariously the brief. I never quite understood how you could get to court and realise you had forgotten to bring the very thing you were there for.

[1] I have heard proper London clerks refer to these as tea parties. Idiots. 
[2] In my youth I could drink vast quantities of alcohol, have very little sleep and still turn up for work able to actually function. When I say vast quantities I mean two cases of Boddie’s and a bottle of black Jack between three of us, on a Wednesday night. Now if I have a couple of glasses of wine and stay up past 10pm midweek I am useless for two days.
[3] Chancery is weird civil law. Nobody understands it apart from chancery barristers. They are a very strange bookish breed of barrister that lives in chambers library and survive by inhaling the nutrients from the dust found on copies of the King’s Bench reports.
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I didn’t always go to court to deliver forgotten trivialities (like the case papers), sometimes I had to go to court to find out what was happening. In the early 90’s very few barristers had a mobile phone and email [4] was not yet available so communication was achieved through a pile of 10 pence pieces and the payphone in the robing room. There were 16 courts, each with an average of five cases and with each case having at least two barristers. All of these barristers would be trying to contact their clerks at lunch time and at the end of the day to let them know what had happened in their case and find out what they would be doing the next day. As you can imagine there was always a big queue for the payphone. If the senior clerk was desperate to know whether one of our barristers was going to finish that day or if the case would continue into the next it was often quicker to send me to court to find out. There was also the possibility that the barrister might “forget” to contact the clerks, but that’s another story.

I pushed open the door to the bar clerks room at the court, back then we actually had a room set aside for our use. I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the first to arrive and therefore was in the right place. The listing officer, Debbie, was there and she smiled and said hello. I’d never met her before but she seemed nice. I knew most of the clerks there on sight but there were a couple I hadn’t come across before. John from Equity Chambers introduced me to the guys and girls I didn’t know and then the listing officer indicated it was time to make a start.

I wasn’t involved in the first half a dozen cases and so I could observe the protocol. It was pretty simple; the listing officer read out the name of the case, the clerks who were involved would announce their part, the listing officer would suggest a couple of dates and the clerks would agree a date between them. I could do this no problem. The listing officer read out the next case, I piped up that I was for the plaintiff and my mate John announced that he was for the defendant. Debbie then indicated that this was a 2-day case and proffered three sets of dates; one in May, one in June and one in September. This was easy, my barrister couldn’t do the May dates but was free for the others. I started to indicate this was the case, at exactly the same time John said ‘I can only do the May dates’.

Time slowed. Nobody told me what to do in this situation. If I fixed it for a date my barrister couldn’t do would I be fired? Would the barrister want to see me and demand an explanation for my appalling clerking? Would the first junior be very sarcastic indeed? Would John and I have to strip to the waist and indulge in Queensbury rules to decide the date? Just when I was really starting to enjoy this job it was all unravelling.

‘Can you do anytime in July?’ John asked me; he turned to the listing officer, ‘Debbie if we shift that 3-day case we just fixed for July to May then we could slot it in then’. I scrabbled through my dates and mercifully, yes! Mr Ponsonby-Smythe was indeed free for July. Debbie confirmed that we could shuffle things around as indicated by John (or my hero as I now thought of him). The rest of the meeting went by with relative ease. John walked me back to Chambers and explained what he did and why.

‘This job is easy. It’s about taking problems and making them go away. When it all comes on top you just have to find the way out. There’s always a way out. The other thing you have to do is look after your mates because one day you’ll want them to look after you. Speaking of which you owe me a pint, quick one in the tavern?’

I had survived my first listing meeting but little did I know that a chancery listing meeting was very different to a criminal listing meeting, I would find out soon enough.

[4] Microsoft released the first Outlook in 1992, Hotmail arrived in 1996. I looked it up.  
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