Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Life at the Bar: Chambers (part 1)

In John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, Guthrie Featherstone states that, “The glory of the advocate is to be opinionated, brash, fearless, partisan, hectoring, rude, cunning and unfair.” This begs the question as to how it is possible that the Chambers system manages to bring together collections of such self-employed individuals and gets them to work together.

The answer may well be represented by the pink ribbon which ties up their briefs. Over the centuries, barristers’ roles have become defined as providing advocacy in court and specialist advice outside. Like any referral profession, they are generally only brought into the frame when there is a problem to solve. The papers arrive tied in pink ribbon (or white-coloured if it’s government work). The correspondence, the documents and the witness statements have all been prepared. Counsel is then asked either to review the papers and provide his advice or alternatively to argue the case in court. When all this is done, the brief is re-tied and returned.

What the ribbon symbolises is the ability of a barrister emotionally to detach himself from any particular case or argument. One day he may be prosecuting a case. The next day, he may be defending something very similar. In neither has he invested any emotional capital over and above that associated with the task at hand. Instead, he is instructed specifically because of his independence and objectivity. With the problem solved, the papers go back. This can also be seen in the ability of members of the same Chambers to be up against each other in court without any risk of conflict of interest or prejudice to either side.

It may well be argued that this ability to detach and compartmentalise strays into other areas of life. Indeed, even the location of those chambers in the Inns of Court is physically detached from the rest of the world. It would certainly help to explain why people who on the face of it are overtly in competition with each other as self-employed specialists in particular areas can come together and not only co-operate but positively share their resources. The other reason undoubtedly is due to the rich cultural heritage of the Bar which has been passed down the generations. For every pupil and new tenant building up a practice and paying little if any rent, there is a senior barrister in effect subsidising them and well aware that he is re-paying the investment made in him by generations now passed. The result is an ethos based upon the sharing of resources, seen most clearly in the Chambers system but also prevalent between members of the bar in general.

This is not to say that Chambers don’t have their problems and the irony is that with the increasing commercialisation and financial success of the bar these have in many ways increased. The biggest difficulty is perhaps stopping people from moving elsewhere. Whilst some Chambers’ constitutions have almost punitive provisions in terms of rent claw backs for those who leave, it hasn’t stopped an increasing number from moving Chambers, something which was almost unheard of thirty years ago. Another problem arises out of this issue and it concerns getting rid of those who become unwelcome. This is rarely if ever done by a vote of chambers but instead by a quiet word from the head of chambers or even perhaps the clerks failing to recommend that person for work. Another issue which can arise concerns the liabilities of the members of Chambers if it collapses. Generally, these will be distributed between its members and this could potentially act as a disincentive to some Chambers taking on too large a financial commitment into the future without knowing what it holds.

Overall, though, life at the Bar remains a very good one and despite the many challenges it has faced, it continues to prosper.

This is the second in a series of articles on Life at the Bar. The others can be found at:


Mr Pineapples said...

That was an excellent summary of the Chambers system. I am however troubled by many aspects of chambers. the world is changing rapidly - I am not sure that chambers is keeping up. The lack of cumputer savvy and systems in many chambers is a worry.

John Flood said...

My feeling is that Tesco Law is going to affect the bar as much as it will change solicitors' practices. Indeed, I would go as far as saying that the bar as we know may not be around for long. There will be amalgamation with solicitors and other providers. An an elite will probably continue, but the bar will be smaller.