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The unwritten rules of clerking

Author: notabarrister |

12 Sep 2012 | 11:40

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I have been extremely fortunate in my career to work for some excellent senior clerks. They have all had their own styles and idiosyncrasies which must in some way have molded my own brand of clerking. They all had two things in common; they needed a steady supply of hot beverages to get them through the day and they all adhered to The Rules.

You won't find these Rules written down anywhere nor will you find them on the Institute of Barrister's Clerks website. These are the mighty commandments that should always be honoured and woe betide any who should fail to follow them, a life in clerking purgatory awaits.

The first rule I was taught is the most important and can be applied to life in general: if you cock up, own up. Don't hide the missing brief under your desk, don't try to blame it on one of your colleagues or the instructing solicitor or the court or a barrister. Stick your chin out, puff out your chest and say in a loud proud voice "bollocks, I think I have cocked this up". You will probably get your ear well and truly torn off but you will have the respect of your senior clerk and of your fellow clerks.

As a very junior clerk I tried to pass off a mistake of my making on to a more senior colleague who, much to my chagrin, had recently joined the clerks room above me. I believed I could do the job better than him and I sought to impose my superiority by dropping him in it. He took the blame and never said a word about it. I felt sick with guilt for what I had done but not sick enough to own up. My senior clerk however had seen right through what had happened and I had a very uncomfortable 30 minute chat where, importantly, he didn't once raise his voice. I came out of our meeting looking very pale and feeling lower than I thought possible.

As a junior clerk you will make many mistakes, some will be great big enormous ones which will feel like the end of the world. It won't matter as long as you take responsibility for your mistakes and own up straight away. If you do that you will be amazed out how seemingly huge problems can be easily resolved when everyone knows there is a problem to be solved.

The second rule delves further into the dark arts of clerking. If you want to poach a clerk from another chambers you must ring your opposite number and ask for permission to speak to your intended target. Why is this so important? As a senior clerk you try to progress the careers of your junior clerks as they move through their working lives. You pour huge amounts of effort into making them the best they can be. You take the flak for them when they drop a clanger. You watch them grow from spotty awkward youths into smart savvy clerking machines. They are your proteges, the next generation and if they are going to go on to bigger and better things you ought to be consulted. Its a professional courtesy from someone who should know how important it is. There is always the risk that the senior clerk you ask for permission will decline your request, it must happen but I have never seen it . The consequence if you don't ask for permission is that you will lose the respect of someone who is your equal and whose help you may well need in the near future.

The third rule may appear very odd indeed. If a barrister joins you from another chambers it is considered polite to ring their senior clerk and apologise. Why should you apologise? It was the barrister that moved and you probably had little to do with it. In a previous post I described the emotional attachment between a clerk and barrister. As a clerk you carefully steer and assist in the crafting of each barristers practice and then they up and leave for a rival down the road. Your opposite number will also have the same connections to his or her barristers and will know the discomfort of losing a barrister. It is therefore vital that as a senior clerk you acknowledge the situation with a quick call. If you are feeling a little sore or simply mischievous you can also let your oppo in on a few of the issues you have had with that particular barrister, "good luck getting paperwork out of Mr Jones on time, we tend to double any time estimates he gives for producing opinions".

The fourth rule relates back to the first rule. If one of your junior clerks makes a massive great enormous cock up you take the flak. To paraphrase Massive Attack, you stand in front of them and take the force of the blow. You can kick them up and down the clerks' room when the dust has settled but you have to take the full ire of the barrister, solicitor or judge.

As a very junior clerk I made a right mess with court listing and a barrister was called on in two courts simultaneously. Unfortunately the judge he kept waiting was HHJ Wright-B'stard QC (there is one in every court) and he demanded to see the barrister and his clerk. I was absolutely petrified until my senior clerk seeing me reach for my jacket said "sit down lad". I have never felt so relieved. He had a quiet word with me when he got back and simply told me to try not to do it again and remember that as a senior clerk that is one of those things you do.

The fifth rule is don't stitch up another clerk. He or she may be a complete bastard who has just poached your first junior clerk without asking for permission to approach, he may have just taken your three biggest earning barristers and not called you to apologise. None of that matters. What matters is that he or she is a clerk. There are very few of us and we have to show some professional courtesy. You can't return a last minute brief and not mention it consists of five lever arch files and that the client is a loon. You can't accept a leading brief and try and pinch the junior brief. You can't fix or move a case without consent. Just because you feel hard done by it doesn't mean you can behave in the same way.

The sixth rule is that your Head of Chambers is always right and if he or she is wrong you can only discuss it when only the two of you are present. A senior clerk and a Head of Chambers have a special working relationship. You discuss matters which are sensitive and need to be handled with care. You are the glue which binds chambers together and you need to present a united front. Behind closed doors you are however well within your rights to let your Head of Chambers have it straight.

The seventh rule will always stand you in good stead. If you can help another clerk out, do it. If a clerk rings you at 5.59pm with a frantic request for a barrister for the next day don't just fob him or her off with "sorry mate we are chocka". Yes, you were about to bugger off to the pub and to help out is going to take at least another hour of mucking about. But that isn't important, helping out someone who does the same difficult job as you is. Take 5 minutes to see if you can't juggle something in the diary. Try every connotation you can think of, you might not be able to help but it is the trying that is important. One day that will be you frantically trying to return a case at the eleventh hour and you will need someone to go that extra mile for you.

The eighth rule is very simple and very important and was taught to me early on. As a senior clerk you have to buy the drinks for junior clerks. It doesn't matter if they don't work at your chambers you still buy the drinks. I got very, very drunk and heard some fantastic stories on many occasions thanks to the generosity of senior clerks.

There are a load more unwritten rules but they do get repetitive. As a junior clerk and you move through the ranks remember these basics. If you want to be taken seriously and respected by your peers you need to play by the Rules.

The author is a barristers' clerk at a specialist family law chambers. Click here to follow @notabarrister on Twitter and click here to visit the notabarrister blog.

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