A very different type of clerk

Chambers have finally succumbed to the business ethic, finds Richard Budworth

Gone are the days when the senior clerk of a chambers would disappear for a long, working lunch and not return to the diary until after four. Such a practice would not be seen as business-like these days.

John Bowker, chair of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks, puts any changes in clerking practices down to the "massive increase in barristers" coupled with a "decrease in work" at the Bar over the last 10 years. There is consequently a need for "marketing exercises" such as brochures and lecturing.

Nicholas Hopgood, a senior clerk at the chambers of Michael Hill QC, at 36 Essex Street, London, has seen many changes in the last 20 years: "The demands on clerks are much greater. A clerk's hours are now from 8am to 7pm as opposed to 9.30am to 6.00pm. We used to get out to court more with our guv'nors. We would meet our colleagues to talk things through over coffee. Things were more leisurely then. Now the sets are much larger and the barristers are more demanding. More is expected from their clerks."

Increased rent, VAT and the cost of computers and fax machines have combined to put extra pressure on the clerks to ensure each barrister has an adequate cash flow. This means more rigorous fee chasing, and explains the increase in clerks who only concentrate on chasing barristers' outstanding fees.

Tony Shaddock, at Michael Burton's chambers, 2 Crown Office Row, has been a clerk since 1962. He claims "much more is now expected of the clerk in terms of handling sophisticated equipment and office management. Fee negotiation is more involved as the solicitors and their clients tend to ask for a greater breakdown of the barrister's costs. Solicitors are choosier and are more prepared to go to other chambers. This often puts the clerk under pressure."

It is not surprising a chambers' administrator has become increasingly common especially in larger sets. They deal broadly with the running of the office, leaving the clerks to concentrate on the barristers' practices. The clerks are increasingly known as practice managers. The administrator is usually recruited from outside and has to work closely with the senior clerk. Often there are teething problems at first.

Shaddock says: "Their strict business approach can be at odds with the clerk who has built up a close personal relationship with the solicitor and who does not see his barristers as commercial units."

Anne Hughes became the administrator at 3 Serjeant's Inn two years ago. Despite some initial unease, things are now working well. Her appointment has freed the senior clerk to concentrate on the development of the barristers' practices. Her duties involve the management of the office, the budget, pupillage recruitment and a health scheme.

Anthony Wells is the chief executive at the chambers of Walter Aylen QC, at Hardwicke Building, Lincoln's Inn. He is a chartered accountant who replaced the chambers' two senior clerks two years ago. He now supervises five clerks in a 58 tenant set. As an "outsider" in the clerking world he had to tread warily at first but that "initial suspicion" has long since disappeared.

The clerks report to him on a regular basis in an atmosphere of co-operation.

"Practice meetings with the barristers are a frequent occurrence," says Wells. "This contrasts favourably with other smaller sets, where the clerk is a remote figure with whom the barristers have little real contact. We sit down with our barristers and talk things through."

Shaddock, however, maintains that the clerk's relationship with his barrister is now less personal, with less time for the clerk to accompany his barrister to court and meet the solicitor. He regrets this but sees it as an inevitable result of the more business-like set-up.

There are fewer clerks working on a commission-only basis today. Most clerks receive a salary with possibly a small commission. Again, this can be seen as a weakening of the clerk's close relationship with his barrister and reflects a broader responsibility to chambers as a whole.

Andrew Flanagan is chambers administrator at Barnards Inn Chambers and has witnessed major changes in clerking practices since he began in 1983 as a junior clerk at 2 New Square. In those days senior clerks would drum up business in the pub, old outstanding fees were often written off in return for fresh work and computers were in their infancy.

As administrator with the help of a junior clerk, Flanagan now runs the diary, the office, the fees (fixing and chasing), and the entire computerised system. Once a month he presents a business report to the chambers meeting, fees are chased with the help of a special computer program and the whole atmosphere is more "business-like".

Director of Barnards Inn Chambers Andrea Kennedy says the changes in clerking were largely brought about by solicitors who passed on the need for efficiency to barristers. Clients were less willing to pay for the services of counsel. The effects took two to three years to pass to the Bar.

Although each chambers is different there is little doubt that more is now expected of the clerk as part of the drive for greater efficiency at the Bar.

The days of the long lunch are well and truly over.

Richard Budworth is a freelance journalist.