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Back to the future: hierarchies and clerks fetching sandwiches

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In the old days a set of barristers chambers comprised about 10 barristers and one clerk.

Barristers would take a tenancy on a few rooms (or chambers) from a much larger building owned by one of the Inns of Court. Even now new recruits are offered 'a tenancy in chambers'.

Barristers were not allowed to advertise. The most they could do was to put their names on a board outside the door. Names appeared in order of seniority, with the junior tenant at the bottom and the head of chambers at the top.

The head of chambers acted as managing director on a 'benign dictator' basis. Instead of advertising, barristers relied upon their clerk to approach solicitors or, more usually, solicitors clerks, to rustle up briefs. This important work was usually done in a public house in the environs of the Temple in central London. In return, the clerk was paid a percentage, typically 10 per cent, of members' income.

The clerk would also answer the telephone, greet those attending chambers for conferences and do other sundry tasks such as changing the light bulbs and fetching in sandwiches. Busier sets might have a young chap helping out in the clerks ' room known as 'the boy'. In my last chambers, the 'boy' was a useful woman in her late fifties. Receptionists were unheard of in the Temple until the past decade.

Things have changed a bit since then and before the recent merger, Crown Office Chambers - where I work - comprised some 35 members, occupying two buildings in the Temple and an annex just outside. Although still an important figure, the head of chambers had relinquished much of their power and chambers was run by various committees. Although apparently fairer, there is not a member of chambers, worn down by the combined burden of committee work and the demands of their practice, who does not pine for the benign dictatorship. These committees included a marketing committee which produced brochures, organised lectures and galvanised members into publishing. The name board stood outside reception to reassure couriers and clients that they had come to the right place.

Chambers was served by five or six clerks who administered barristers' diaries and would allocate work according to their availability and workload. The clerks had little to do with finding the work in the first place and most had shifted from a percentage to a salary. The clerks would still help you over to court with your books if asked, and might, if pushed, change a light bulb. They would not, however, fetch your sandwiches.

The merger brought about various changes.

There are now 70 of us occupying three buildings in the Temple. We employ a total of 17 staff, including three receptionists who work shifts and show clients and solicitors to smart, frontof-house conference facilities. We have two senior clerks, five other clerks and four 'boys' - two of whom are girls. Given the enormous amount of ground to be covered on issues such as accommodation, marketing and IT, the merger has gone surprisingly smoothly. Two unexpected matters have, however, proved serious bones of contention.

The first is the name board. To fit the names of 70 barristers, in order of seniority, on any board that could be displayed sensibly by the front door proved to be a true feat of 'Tardis' technology. The end result was of little use to clients or couriers, who might take up to 10 minutes to find the name they were looking for.

The accommodation committee's solution, endorsed by the executive committee, was that, contrary to tradition, names should appear in alphabetical order. At a stroke, some junior member of chambers whose surname happened to be 'Antelme' appeared in the head of chambers' slot, while senior silks with names like 'Wilkinson' followed up at the junior end of the board. This common-sense arrangement persisted for all of 24 hours before the traditional view prevailed. Now one often bumps into couriers on the front steps, pondering the long list of 70 names.

The second highly contentious issue is whether, now that members of chambers are so busy, it would not be more cost-effective for the clerks to fetch their sandwiches.

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