Clerking is an old and very traditional profession. Barristers’ clerks have been looking after the professional and personal lives of barristers for hundreds of years. However, these days, barristers’ clerks are the professional “minder” or “manager” of not just one barrister, but several barristers that make up a chambers. They are the “door keepers” who make sure that the barristers are kept employed and the “fixers” who fix the fees and arrange their appointments and dates for court work.

How do these clerks get trained?

Traditionally, barristers’ clerks were always taught from an early age by their senior clerk in the chambers. Long ago, there was no formal training, but everything was taught by the senior clerk to his or her prodigy, by example.

Nowadays, a modern barristers’ clerk has the option of more formal training available to them, including courses that are offered by the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, by Central Law Training, by various professional training organisations and ourselves, Chambers People.

All of these organisations are trying to raise the standard of clerking services in barristers’ chambers for the benefit of the profession as a whole. The areas that are covered in this training include the following:

  • diary and practice management
  • fees and financial management, including fee negotiation and fee collection
  • business development and marketing
  • human resources and accreditation procedures

The Carter Review of the Legal Profession has caused many sets of chambers to consider how they can improve the standard of services offered by their clerks and staff generally to their professional clients. They need to be able to retain the work that is coming into chambers. It must not be allowed to be retained by solicitor clients or in the case of publicly funded work, by government agencies, for example the CPS.

In my view, there will always be the need for the independent Bar, but it is essential that barristers’ clerks are properly trained in order that the services of a chambers can be properly maintained and there is no “leakage” of work from the profession.

The training that we provide to barristers’ clerks at Chambers People starts with an introduction to the history of clerking. Barristers in the past were usually clerked by one senior clerk, whose wife was either the housekeeper or seamstress of the chambers, and their son or daughter was the young person who was shoved up the chimney to clean it! Nowadays, a chambers consists of many members and they many more clerks and administrative staff that cover all the tasks that are required in a modern barristers’ chambers.

Diary and practice management

Training in diary management is essential to maximise the income to the chambers. A junior barristers’ clerk needs to be instructed and directed by more senior colleagues on the work of individual members of chambers, their likes and their dislikes, and their method of working – including the speed that some barristers work, as some work at a different rate from the next person.

At Chambers People we try to give a general introduction to most junior clerks who we train on how the legal system in this country operates so that the young barristers’ clerk has a clearer idea of how one part of the litigation in a case can be appealed to another level.

We try to explain the meaning to some of the jargon that is used as clerks, eg “fixed” or “warned” or “floating” in describing types of cases. We try also to explain how each of those types of case can be affected by the many factors. For example, a judge may order that some additional evidence is necessary in a case, either by an extra witness being called, or some kind of written evidence being produced to the court. This can upset the original estimate for the case and add length to the hearing so that the next fixture in the barristers’ diary is going to be seriously affected.

Clerks must be very astute and carry out strict forward planning by looking ahead in the diary, not only for the next day or the day after, but the week after, the month after and even up to a year later, to anticipate and deal with possible diary clashes. As this is a constant and movable feast, barristers’ clerks need to be trained to identify the problem cases well in advance.

One of the greatest assets that a chambers has is the trust that builds up between the professional client and barristers’ clerk. If a clerk is asked by a solicitor if “Mr Bloggs” is available on a certain date, the professional client must be assured that even if the barrister of his choice is not available, another barrister in the chambers will be able to provide an equal service to the first choice. A clerk must learn therefore how to satisfy the needs of the professional client, while being utterly fair with the work distribution in the chambers.

Many a barristers’ clerk has lost their job when they have been perceived to have been unfair in their distribution or favoured only certain members of chambers when deciding who should get new work allocated to them.

Fees and financial management

In this day and age when many of the fees have set rates, eg graduated fees in criminal and family cases, the barristers’ clerk needs to know how they can maximise the income for an individual barrister by ensuring that the barrister correctly records all work that they have carried out on behalf of the client.

The art of negotiation is a difficult one to master. When training junior clerks, we have to make sure they realise that asking for an outrageously high fee for a piece of work undertaken by a barrister will quickly destroy the credibility of not only themselves, but also the barrister and the chambers that they work for. We teach the junior clerks that it is better for both sides to walk away from negotiations happy than to antagonise the other party by making stupid or rash suggestions.

We teach junior clerks therefore to propose fees on a sensible basis with reference to preparation time, seniority of counsel, content of the case, length of hearing and taking into account all factors surrounding the case.

Business development and marketing

Marketing and promotion of the work of chambers is a primary role of a barristers’ clerk. Who better to promote the work of an individual barrister or the chambers as a whole than a barristers’ clerk with some years of experience and knowledge about the practices of all of the members of chambers?

In this age of political correctness, it is sometimes impossible to record on a computer or in writing certain matters regarding an individual barristers’ practice. For example, it is impossible to write down that “Mr X” will never work with solicitor “Mr Y” ever again because he found “Mr Y” to be obnoxious! A clerk has a very retentive memory and is taught to learn to memorise these facts so that they can prevent any lasting damage or embarrassment.

Business development is something instilled into modern clerks early in their careers as they need to understand that in order to maximise the income to chambers, clerks need to think laterally. They need to consider any opportunity that will enable their chambers to gain further work or new instructions. For example, when opening The Times’ Law Supplement on a Tuesday, clerks should be looking at information about solicitor clients that may be moving from one solicitors’ practice to another. They should immediately be thinking if they know that person and sending something to them at their new partnership to welcome them at their new firm and to remind them to continue using the services of chambers from their new address!

Accreditation procedures

Barristers’ chambers now have to comply with accreditation procedures such as BarMark or QualityMark. The Bar Council, who operate the BarMark, have long since strived to make sure that barristers’ chambers are effectively and efficiently run and the BarMark was introduced to give some structure to the way that the administration of chambers is handled.

The QualityMark operated by the Community Legal Services (CLS) has also provided a framework for chambers and help chambers to run more effectively. Barristers’ clerks need to be aware of the requirements of both BarMark and QualityMark.

Ultimately, I can see a day ahead of us when all sets of chambers will effectively have to have one or either of these accreditations in order to effectively have a chambers that is “licensed” to practice. This means that some smaller sets of chambers without sufficient resources, will be unable to obtain the BarMark or QualityMark and will be forced to merge with other larger sets of chambers. For some, including those chambers that now provide services to members of the ethnic communities, this could be a problem.

Clerks need to be trained on how these procedures operate and we, and other organisations, provide that help.

Training generally

The whole issue of training barristers’ clerks is under review by the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks at the time of writing. The Institute, with a membership of over 800 members made up of senior clerks and junior clerks, introduced a BTEC programme a number of years ago which has been very successful. Unfortunately, not all chambers participate or have members of their staff who take part in the scheme. This is not necessarily down to costs, but it is due to the fact that smaller sets of chambers cannot easily afford to have one of their staff disappearing for half or even a full day’s training off site.

We at Chambers People provide training for clerks at all levels which are self-contained and can be carried out at the chambers using only a laptop to present a PowerPoint presentation to the student on a one-to-one basis. This is considered to be a cost effective and time effective way of training clerks and avoids considerable disruption in the clerks’ room.

There are now several providers of mentoring services to barristers’ clerks and to chambers generally. All chambers need to consider staff training as a priority for without properly trained staff, the chambers is possibly not able to maximise the income to the members. A poorly trained clerk will not instinctively react to situations that are presented to them.

In the future, the general level of education for junior barristers’ clerks will almost certainly have to be raised as the demands on the staff by barristers and their professional clients, provides challenges that will have to be met in the future.

At the moment the nominal entry level for a junior barristers’ clerk who is a school or college leaver is a minimum of 5 GCSE’s at A–C Grades including English and Mathematics. English GCSE at A–C Grade is considered to show a general level of communication skills. Mathematics at A–C Grade shows that the candidate is numerate and can do logical problem solving. However, some chambers are now pushing to get candidates for their junior positions who have a higher level of education, including good grades at A Level. The aim is to gradually raise the standards across the profession.

Summary

Training of existing staff in chambers is a necessity. Without it chambers in the future will suffer. There will not be sufficiently experienced clerks to manage the chambers in the years to come. Chambers must make sure that their clerks react in an intelligent way to enquiries made of them by solicitors, not just filling the electronic diary with bookings because there are spaces that are empty and need to be filled, but that the diaries are properly managed and work is allocated in a proper way. Only well trained clerks will be able to manage this properly.

Martin Poulter is an experienced former barristers’ clerk of some 30 years standing. He now runs Chambers People, a specialist consultancy providing staff recruitment, training services and support services for barristers’ chambers across the UK. Email martin@chamberspeople.co.uk.

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