Clocking up half a century as a clerk, Munby LJ told Lee, was “a record that few of your colleagues can match and even fewer will in future be able to emulate”.
While Lee’s achievement may be near impossible to emulate, his memories of a lifetime at the bar bring to life the development of the profession, which operated without the aid of any technology when he joined 3 New Square (now Wilberforce Chambers) as a junior clerk in 1959.
“The job was carrying books over to court in those days,” recalls Lee. “Photocopiers have made trials longer – the paper they take to court now is ridiculous. Most trials would last between an hour and half a day when I started. The biggest trials lasted four days. Now big cases last around 40 days. Most of the papers are never read. It’s all about research.”
That is not to say that Lee, whose Lincoln’s Inn career has seen him serve at 4 Stone Buildings, 2 New Square, 1 New Square and now 13 Old Square, has been afraid to embrace advances in technology.
As Munby LJ highlighted at Lee’s 50th anniversary soirée: “All of us who were around at the time remember the spectacle of Warren struggling over to court with the first chambers’ mobile phone – a large and unwieldy object the size of a small suitcase and the weight of a couple of bricks. In those now faraway days of our technological innocence there were many who didn’t know what it was and had never even heard of a mobile phone.”
The low-tech bar of 1959 may be a world apart from that of 2010, but so too are the barristers.
“If you were a QC in those days you came from a very wealthy background, had tremendous ability and were a great orator,” recalls Lee. “If you became a QC you were a very formidable person; there were very few made up in those days.”
While the bar still suffers from accusations of elitism, it has made strides in recent years to attract pupils from a more diverse range of backgrounds, with chambers making awards of up to £60,000 to help fledging barristers make their way in the profession.
When Lee was starting out there was no question of anyone who was not from a wealthy background even attempting to become a barrister.
“Pupils used to pay 100 guineas to chambers every six months over a 12-month pupillage and they did two separate 12 months with different chambers,” recalls Lee. “Now they get a minimum of £10,000.”
Unsurprisingly, competition for pupillage places was far less fierce than it is today.
“In those days it was more about who you knew,” says Lee. “If you were well connected and had been to Eton and Oxford or Cambridge you’d get pupillage. It started to change about 20 years ago.”
There was clearly a massive divide between the silks and clerks of the day, something that quickly became obvious to Lee when he cut his teeth at 3 New Square.
“I was there for four years and the head of chambers spoke to me four times,” says Lee. “I got called in at Christmas, when he said, ‘Well done, you’re doing well, here’s four shillings’.”
Despite this Lee grew close to many of the barristers he clerked for. Sydney Templeman QC, who he worked with during his 1969-75 stint at 2 New Square, was one who made a particular impression.
“He had an ability to assimilate things very quickly and had a great court style,” recalls Lee. “When he went to the bench he was quite aggressive – they used to call him Sid Vicious. He was very intolerant of stupidity, but was a great guy to work for. I learnt more there than anywhere else.”
Although Lee has hung up his clerking boots already, retiring in 2002 following the merger of 1 New Square and 12 New Square, he found the quiet life boring and soon returned to clerking when John McDonnell QC hired him for the 2003 launch of 13 Old Square.
“I got bored when I was on gardening leave,” admits Lee. “I thought it would be great, but after a year I realised that I didn’t want to do it at all.
“I was excited by the [13 Old Square] venture.”
That said, Lee, who has worked as a clerk since he was 15 years old, could retire for good at the end of this year. If he does he will leave a namesake to continue the Lee family’s ties with the bar, with Warren Lee junior also serving as a clerk at 13 Old Square.
He has a lot to live up to.