13 December 1999
At the top of Fleet Street the other day, I caught sight of this funny little cove dressed in striped trousers with a waistcoat, watch chain and all the trimmings, surrounded by a group of Japanese tourists. My very aged and wise senior partner, who was at my side, told me that this person was, in fact, a barrister.
Apparently you don't have to wear fancy dress to be a barrister, at least not outside court, but lots of the chaps who are barristers think it's a terrific idea to do so. And they are not allowed ever to shake hands with each other. Apparently, this is the absolute worst thing a barrister can do with another barrister, although this doesn't square with what happened to my senior partner's cousin at school when he was fag to someone who was later-to-become QC. That little incident appears to have been the beginning of the practice of tying everything up in pink ribbon.
I was also fascinated to learn that you can't even become a barrister unless you eat 12 dinners at one of the Inns of Court. Clearly these chaps (apparently they are mostly chaps) have fantastically strong stomachs, because the only times I've eaten at an Inn of Court the food has been dreadful and the port even worse.
The reason for all this bad dining appears to be barristers' nostalgia for public school. These Inns of Court dinners were rigged so as to remind them of those days. For the women and grammar school boys who manage to infiltrate the bar, the experience of dining is a useful pointer as to what it would have been like to go to public school, had they been so fortunate.
The bar calls the place where they eat badly together "the mess". No one else is allowed to eat with them in these places, except judges. This practice of eating with judges is the origin of the collective noun for barristers, which is, of course, a "cluster". This describes the group of barristers that surrounds a member of the judiciary when he (usually it is a he) attends their "mess". The objective of a barrister on such occasions is to try to get the judge to remember his name, albeit not for the wrong reasons.
And then there are robing rooms. These are separated into the gentlemen's and ladies' robing room, not because gentlemen barristers have to slip into a clean pair of underpants during the course of a trial - although the way they are treated by some judges makes this a wonder - neither do lady barristers want somewhere private to ease into their sport support bras. Apparently, the gentlemen's robing room is designed to be as much like the junior common room as possible and the presence of girlies puts some of the chaps off their stroke.
I was also interested to learn that barristers don't have to be paid for the work they do for solicitors. Barristers apparently are willing to do their job for an honorarium.
The bar stands up, though, for the traditional values of client service in that it is, of course, the privilege of solicitors and their clients to have access to the bar, rather than the pernicious, modern view, the bar's privilege to serve its clients.
What a fine old institution the bar is! It does the world a great favour by its very existence but I really don't think the English Tourist Board is making enough of the opportunity.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org