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Family Law

The leading authority on all aspects of family law

09 NOV 2015

Clerklife: People are strange, when you're a clerk

Clerklife: People are strange, when you're a clerk
In the whimsical meanderings of my previous posts I talk a lot about clerks but very little about barristers. I’m not sure when I started to realise there were very different breeds of barristers but so much of my knowledge came through some sort of weird osmosis. Time to put on my best David Attenborough voice and take you through the many varieties of barristers that lurk in chambers.

There are three main types: criminal, family and civil.

Criminal barristers are the rock and roll stars of the Bar. They have swagger and charm aplenty. They are like that friend that turns up two hours late for a party, unshaven and dishevelled but still manages to look cooler than anyone else there. All the girls at the party lust after him and all the guys want to be him. That is your normal criminal barrister. Well, it is if they defend. If they prosecute they are a bit more like the cool friend’s wingman, who only gets dragged along to parties by the cool guy to make him look even better.

As a junior clerk if you find yourself in the pub on a Wednesday night at closing time with a bunch of your guvnors 1 it’s usually the criminal guys and girls who are at the centre of things. They are the party people, when not in court you will find them at The Pub, the capital letters are intended. Every town has The Pub where the barristers and clerks all hang out.

After one legendary Chambers party I found myself in a private member’s club with a very senior criminal barrister until the very small hours of the morning - the licensing laws did not seem to matter. He passed away a few years ago but I will never forget sitting sipping very expensive cognac whilst puffing on a cigar which cost more than I earned in a month.

Family barristers are split into very different sub-sets: children and money. Children lawyers, also known as care bears, deal mainly with cases involving children. They are the social workers of the Bar. Client friendly and more focussed on fair outcomes than crushing your opponent into the floor with devastating advocacy, care bears have to be handled, well, with care. They may come across as fluffy and lovely but to do what they do they have to have a hard edge. They see some of the worst behaviour from 'loving' parents that would make your toes curl. Cross them at your peril.

The money barristers are the glory boys of the family world. Sharp suited, cut-throat and merciless. They don’t have the same swagger as the criminal barristers but because they earn much more than the criminal lot they don’t really care.

Civil covers a really broad spread and my experience really only lets me comment on three types: personal injury, commercial and chancery. Personal injury or PI is a broad field in itself, everything from the pile-it-high whiplash merchants, to the clinical negligence/industrial diseases aficionados. In general PI lawyers spend far more time in chambers tapping away at a keyboard or dictating into a voice recorder, churning out endless opinions and pleadings. As a junior clerk I always found PI lawyers to be a wonderful distraction. They would be looking for a reason to put off churning out yet another cut and paste advice on quantum and would relish a chat with an inquisitive junior clerk. I once asked a PI lawyer what the difference between TWOC and a tort was, 30 minutes of skiving off whilst being educated. It turns out a tort is a type of dessert.

Commercial barristers are basically Gordon Gekko. Flash, brash and loaded. The legal stuff they do is nowhere near as much fun as crime but they know how to let their hair down. It’s just not down The Pub, it’s a quick flight to France for Beaujolais nouveau, the day before scooting back for a mareva injunction before the red judge.

For every ying there must be a yang. To counter the sheer force of personality of a commercial barrister you have to have a chancery barrister. They stroll into chambers at about 11 am clad in tweed and acquire a pot of tea. The Times cryptic crossword is obliterated in minutes before it’s time to consider some ecclesiastical chattels point of law dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s brief stint as Lord Protector.

Test Match Special will invariably be providing the background noise to the soft slurp of tea and the shuffling of glasses from bridge of nose to forehead and back. When lunch is called at one it’s time to down tools and wander off for a half bottle of red and a light lunch before returning ready for action at three. After several weeks of such gargantuan efforts, eventually an opinion will emerge which nobody will ever really understand but for which the clerks will charge a sizeable sum.

These vastly differing characters with their individual quirks and styles made life as a wide eyed junior clerk truly entertaining. After 25 years my admiration and adoration has not diminished and my life would be far less interesting if I wasn’t surrounded by barristers.

1 Clerks tend to refer to their barristers as guvnors when discussing them with other clerks, eg you’ll never guess what I had to nip and get for one of my guvnors today.  

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