Chambers clerks. Clerks no more on barrowed time

The image of clerks as wheeler-dealers is hardly up-to-date according to a recent survey, reports Ravinder Singh Chahal

Not many people would accuse barristers of being stupid – they might not be street-wise, but they are not dumb.

However, the legal press has recently suggested that one particular group has been taking advantage of our finest legal brains for a long time. It seems that while the briefs take the exams and do the work, their unqualified clerks take a hefty slice of the fees.

One senior clerk apparently “creams off” £315,000 a year, which is not bad for a member of a fraternity variously depicted as a closed shop of East End barrow boys or shady wheeler-dealers.

The sudden interest in clerking has been sparked by a survey of 200 heads of chambers (of which about a third responded) by chartered accountants BDO Stoy Hayward. The report states: “A number of senior clerks earn considerably more than a normal commercial rate for the job they carry out.”

Ian Harvey, author of the report and head of the BDO Professional Practice Consultancy Unit, was most interested in the duties that a senior clerk performs and was rather bemused by the press attention. “It was never intended to be public domain, but was leaked to the press, who focused on the levels of remuneration.”

Harvey says the most striking aspect of the report is that a third of clerks are not involved in marketing their chambers and half do nothing in the training and development of junior barristers. When asked what he thought the role of a senior clerk should be, Harvey says: “I think that question needs to be turned around. We should be asking 'What do chambers need?', which is all the support functions of a normal business. This includes support in marketing, human-resource development and technology.

“Senior clerks view the chambers as their own sets, they define their own roles, so we have a reverse-employment situation.”

Harvey believes that the reason for this is tradition. “Chambers are the products of a different age and now they need to move into the business age. Some sets are struggling to make the transformation from a clubbish organisation to a business.”

Despite the external criticism most members of chambers remain happy with the level of service provided by their senior clerks. Harvey's report finds that “the great majority of heads of chambers believe that their clerks provide good value”.

Allen Dyer, a civil barrister with 4 Pump Court for over 20 years, describes his senior clerk, Carolyn McCombe, as “first-rate”. He maintains that the common perception of a senior clerk as an “unqualified barrow-boy” is outmoded. “Perhaps it was true in the 1940s and 1950s when they entered the set as a head teaboy and progressed from there. There have been many changes since then.

“In the 1970s the management budget for the set was only around £25,000. With the rise in the value of cases in the 1970s and 1980s chambers have become multimillion- pound concerns which require professional management.”

While the BDO report states that the “the level of reward of clerks needs to be coupled with their responsibilities”, Dyer says: “The senior clerk's job is extremely demanding, involving large sums of money and responsibility. It isn't just booking work and fixing fees.

“I don't know why people get upset when they hear that the average senior clerk's salary is in six figures. They should be well-rewarded, although I would raise my eyebrows if it started to exceed a quarter of a million.”

The polarity of opinion can only be explained by misconceptions of the senior clerk's role. As a Cambridge law graduate with more than a decade's experience as a litigation solicitor, McCombe is in a unique position to understand why confusion may arise. “Clerks in some ways have always had a slight veil of mystery. No one is quite sure where they come from, but the impression one got was that if your father or uncle wasn't a clerk you were unlikely to break into the circle.

“Before they started advertising, and they still only advertise for the top jobs, the only way to hear about a vacancy was through word of mouth.”

McCombe gets speculative calls from people wanting to enter the profession every month or so but she remains convinced that people have no idea what it takes to be a clerk. “People are more aware that chambers are a business, and there are opportunities within that for a whole group of administrators or practice managers.

“A good senior clerk needs flexibility, diplomacy and a sense of humour. There's no point coming in from a firm of accountants and expecting chambers to be like a large firm of accountants – it's simply not. There are no two senior clerks who do the same job. They do the job that their chambers require of them. People do think of barrow boys and wheeler-dealers who only deal with fees. That is an important part of the job but it is less important now than the management of a large business.

“You are caught in the middle as a buffer between barristers, who are not always the most reasonable human beings, and solicitors who rightly require a higher level of service.”

These difficulties are compounded by the changes that chambers have experienced over the last decade. Celia Monksfield, senior clerk at Goldsmith Chambers, says: “The marketplace has changed enormously. The old way of clerking no longer exists. Senior clerks are much more qualified now.” She maintains that she was fortunate because she was trained first as a legal secretary before she became one of the first women clerks, and then had a spell with Alfred Marks where she gained solid managerial experience before her return to clerking.

“We are the first generation of clerks to deal with new technology,” she says. “Suddenly everyone wants a laptop, or we are getting voice-mail installed. It is the same with marketing the chambers with seminars, brochures or events.” She likens her role to that of managing director of a company with 39 directors. “It is not a nine-to-five job, and worthy of a high salary. It is extremely stressful; I have suffered a duodenal ulcer and high blood pressure”.

Leslie Page, senior clerk at 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, is one of a near-extinct group of senior clerks who can perhaps feel most aggrieved at the suggestions that followed the BDO report. He entered the chambers 41 years ago, having left school aged 15. He served what he describes as a hard 10-year apprenticeship and not surprisingly he is unimpressed at the criticism levelled at unqualified clerks.

“It is all very well being an academic but that does not make you a barrister's clerk. Three to four years ago we got a consultancy to do a report on chambers, which we spent a lot of money on. We brought in a practice manager on that consultancy's advice and it was a disaster. Several chambers have taken them on and some have come unstuck.”

On the question of money he says: “I've been here for 41 years and reached the top. I earn good money but so I should – there's no pension, expense accounts or bonuses”. He also dispels the myth of the idle clerk: “The hours are longer than they've ever been, the phone is constantly ringing and you can never catch up.”

The most revealing thing he says about the job is the dedication it requires: “I'm thinking about chambers last thing before I go to bed, or first thing when I wake up. When I first started clerking, it used to be an attractive lifestyle. I wouldn't like to be starting now.”