Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Talking About Barristers' Clerks

When I talk about my research on barristers' clerks to other academics, they are curious and interested usually because they have never encountered a group like them before. Today I had a conversation with an academic who is personally affected by them. In addition to lecturing he practises in a set of chambers that actively pursues academics to be members.

This is unusual. Academics who practise at the bar generally do so as "door" tenants, a quaint term for someone who is attached to the chambers but doesn't work in them on a daily basis. Their association is ad hoc. The sporadic member is a difficult person to clerk for as they are not in a position to respond to clients' needs as others can. If you have a seminar or lecture, you can't just abandon it and rush along to the courts because a client wishes it.

The academic I was talking with was concerned to find ways to ensure that academic members would feel part of the chambers, be integrated. He started by asking me what I thought the key attributes of a good clerk were. It's one of those situations where I feel I should have ready-made three-part list up my sleeve to trot out. But I don't so I had to think about it.

Two attributes come to mind. The first is that clerks have to know people, they have to like people and be interested in them. And this has to be genuine not manufactured. Clerks need to know what is going on with their barristers because ultimately they are selling people. Clerks need to know them as individuals so they can track them and counsel them through their careers. They need to know their barristers as a collective force so they can situate their chambers among the others.

Clerks also need to know other people: their solicitors, the listing clerks at the courts and so on. Clerks have to be able to get on with a range of people despite the differences. That's a real talent.

The second attribute connects with the first and it is a sense of timing. Clerks must know how to monitor and guide a barrister's career. At the beginning of a career a baby barrister is dependent on the clerk for work. It's the consequence of being part of a referral occupation. Then it is the clerk's task to develop the career trajectory to suit the talents of the individual, and the desires of the individual barrister. The clerk manages the career expectations and uncertainties of the barristers. All of which must be done with sensitivity.

There are nodal points when decisions have to be taken. What direction will the baby barrister be weaned onto? What are the strengths of a particular barrister? Advocacy or advisory work? When is the optimum time to apply for silk? And what would the consequences be?

Besides being matters of individual choice and decision, for the clerk they are also collective matters. How does the individual fit and perform within the chambers organization? The clerk resembles the Tralfamordorians in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. They see in four dimensions, that is including time. It means the Tralfamordorians can see any moment of their lives they want, but they can't change their lives.

Clerks have to look at the chambers the same way as if they were on the planet Tralfamadore--from beginning to end as a unit with a life and culture of its own. The individual must be a part without being a disruptive force. It's a talent, especially if you are not born on Tralfamadore. One can see it when clerks talk about former pupils who are now heads of chambers.

How does this work? A lot of it is to do with proximity. Clerks are in daily contact with their barristers. Most barristers have to pass through the clerks' room to enter chambers.

This then is the difficulty of the academic member. They are not proximate; they can't respond to urgency when called on. They take more effort. But for what return? This is not an easy decision for a rational economic actor to take.

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