Traders in human commodities
7 July 1998
Clerks have a reputation for being wheelers and dealers, duckers and divers. As Shaun Pye discovers on his day out at 29 Bedford Row, that stamp is not far wide of the mark.
It is 9am the Tuesday after England's last-gasp defeat by Romania in the World Cup and the atmosphere in the clerks' room at 29 Bedford Row is a little downbeat.
Clerks love football. Senior clerk Robert Segal owns over 400 replica football tops. When I express surprise that they do not have a television in the room to watch the games he sheepishly points to a set, illicitly lurking under the table.
But after a short inquest into England's defensive shortcomings, the clerks get down to business. If there is one thing clerks like even more than football, it is opening cheques from solicitors. Across Segal's computer screen scrolls his simple philosophy: "Be focused, take no shit, get the money."
Segal is an old-style clerk. When he was promoted to senior clerk three years ago he sacked 13 staff. "We used to have a head count every Monday morning," he says.
He earns a mixture of basic salary and commission, although he will not elaborate beyond complaining that he earns "half what I should".
Clerks start out at the set on £6,500 pushing trolleys and making tea. But there is money if you can make the cut. Ollie Durham, 19, is the second most junior member of the five-strong team and he is on £17,000. Mind you, Ollie is earning his wedge today. He put his back out soon after arriving at 29 Bedford Row. "You wouldn't believe the lifting these boys do," Segal sighs. Everyone tells Ollie to go home, but he will not.
So what exactly do clerks do? "We're traders," explains Segal, "only instead of shares, we deal in humans".
The clerks can sell any of the 47 barristers at the set, which specialises in family, personal injury and property. But around 20 tenants with "special needs" are looked after by specific clerks. This morning, David Creighton, the first junior clerk, spends five minutes looking after his "problem barrister" who has a habit of organising his own diary. Clerks hate barristers organising their own diary.
"It gets embarrassing," explains Segal. "We have to make sure that some barristers don't have too little to do, because they become insecure, or too much, because they burn out."
The morning's trading is routine. Each brief is mentally weighed-up in seconds. "It takes 20 years of experience to do that," says Segal.
Segal has no time for new-fangled concepts such as chief executives, who are often "overpaid and underworked". However six months ago he brought in Fiona Simeon to look after the administration and they meet up once a week.
Fiona is a card-carrying Geordie. Her office is adorned with pictures of both the Tyne and Jimmy Nail. The set has been thinking about buying voicemail software. Segal has written a memo saying that voicemail would be excellent - for the clerks. He doubts whether more than a dozen barristers could be trusted to use it properly. Fiona produces the facts and figures for him.
At 11.30 am every day Segal meets with head of chambers Peter Ralls QC. They begin this morning's meeting sifting through a mound of applications to join chambers. One woman in her mid-40s, whose income is around £70,000 per year, wants to join one of the teams. Unfortunately, she is too poor. It is agreed to send her the polite but firm "not looking to recruit at the present time" letter.
Another possibility, a "friend of a friend of a tenant", has received good reports in informal soundings around the Bar. It is agreed to circulate his details more widely around the set.
Finally, Segal updates Ralls on Ollie's back and, it transpires, groin problem. "He's walking like an old man." The set recently paid for Ollie to see a specialist and gave him a loan to get his car fixed. "Well, he did it working here," says Segal. He also later admits that three rival sets have tried to poach him. "I wanted to tie him down here with that long-term loan."
Lunch is eaten in the clerks' room. "I can't understand how some clerks can take three-hour lunches," says Segal. "How do they do it?"
It is 2pm. Despite assurances that the clerks' room goes "beserk" in the afternoon, the phones remain fairly quiet. David is forced to admit that he is "enormously bored". Segal phones a few contacts to try and stimulate a little trade.
A couple of problems crop up. An "aggressive senior partner" has just taken over a case and wants to know if he will get on with the barrister. "Of course you will," says Segal. The solicitor goes away to think it over. "He'll phone back in an hour to agree with me," says Segal. He does.
Another solicitor has instructions for a high-profile divorce. The firm tried to instruct the set on a separate aspect of the case two weeks previously but "ballsed it up". Segal demands a guarantee of payment and wants a correctly prepared brief by Friday.
"Some solicitors can take liberties," he explains. The "nightmare" scenario is when a case settles, or the location of the hearing is switched, and the solicitor forgets to mention it to the clerks.
Segal says he is a "systematic neurotic". Watching him and the team painstakingly double-check the diary for tomorrow, it is hard to argue with the description.
By 5pm Ollie is in big trouble. His back is in spasms and he is forced to lie down in the basement. Reluctantly he gets a cab home.
At 6pm, Segal puts aside an hour at the end of the day to discuss any problems, professional or personal, that his tenants may have. "Being a barrister is like marrying into a threesome. You have your wife or husband, and your senior clerk."
But that is not to say they are friends. "I'll always say "good morning'. But I won't go on holiday with them. If I was on holiday and saw them on the beach I'd sit on a different bit. Probably a better bit." As it happens, Segal has no callers at his therapeutic surgery.
As everyone is leaving, a strongly-worded fax comes through from a solicitor. "Ouch," says David. A barrister has forgotten to send back some paperwork. Does Segal ever have to get tough? He recalls one incident when he stabbed David in the buttocks with a letter opener - although that was an accident. "How could I ever shout at my clerks?"
But what about with the barristers? "Oh, of course," he says. "This guy's going to get an absolute bollocking."