The Clerks' Tale

Today's solicitors will find it hard to believe, but, in years gone by, barristers were even more reluctant to spend money than they are now. 1 Temple Gardens “had not been decorated or cleaned for centuries”, recalls Ralphs of the set he joined as a 14-year-old in 1955. The dust was occasionally redistributed by a woman called “the laundress”, who was “a dreadful old lady who used to go around with the filthiest cloth you've ever seen. I was terrified of drinking tea”. To make matters worse, Ralphs had to make do with only half a desk. He explains: “An incendiary bomb had fallen through the ceiling in 1943. It had burnt off the drawer unit and one set of legs. There was a jagged charcoal edge running along one end.”

The purse strings were just as tight at 17 Old Buildings, Lincoln's Inn, the set Paul Shrubsall joined in 1964. “They had a chambers meeting and decided to buy a typewriter,” he says, smiling. “This thing was the Holy Grail. You'd have thought they'd spent their entire life savings on it.”

An antiquated chancery set, 17 Old Buildings' financial systems were crude to say the least, says Shrubsall: “Chambers accounts were kept in a tiny little book. It was all done in guineas. The senior clerk used to pay the housekeeping out of his own pocket and then recoup it at the end of the month by giving each barrister a chit for his share of the housekeeping and the clerks' fees that the barrister owed the clerk.”

It seems that no one was all that bothered about cashflow. Many sets behaved like gentlemen's tailors and only rendered fee notes upon the client's request. (Remarkably, a chambers survey revealed that one set in the Temple was still continuing this practice in 1985.) Once rendered, invoices were rarely, if ever, chased. It was, after all, the era before photocopiers and word processors, and writing or typing up a fresh fee note was usually considered far too much of a fag. Ralphs remembers that, when he joined One Essex Court in 1974, some of the barristers had bills that had been outstanding for up to 25 years. Not surprisingly, he had little joy in recovering the outstanding money.

In the end, the bar had no choice but to adopt more commercial habits. The introduction of VAT in 1973 forced chambers to adopt proper book-keeping systems. Meanwhile, the arrival of decimalisation in 1971 not only saw the end of fees being charged in guineas, but also the demise of a clerks' fees system that was, says Ralphs, “absolutely Byzantine in its complexity. I don't think any barrister or solicitor understood it”. This was mainly due to the system being so antiquated. For example, long after the arrival of electric lighting, a clerk's fees for a conference with a QC continued to include a charge of 2/6d for candles to light the barrister's room.