Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Life at the Bar: Chambers (part 2)

This article has recently been published in The Times Online.

The Temple along with Gray’s Inn and Lincoln’s Inn are where the vast majority of barristers are based in London. Each has its own particular characteristics but all have the scholarly air of an Oxbridge college. It is to these almost other-worldly destinations that solicitors and their clients come to set out their often extremely worldly woes.

As you walk into the heart of the Temple from the Strand the thing that hits you most is the sense of history. It’s as though the tranquillity of the surroundings has led time itself to settle in and take a break from its relentless march. However, lest you should forget its presence, the sun dial in Pump Court (once home to the infamous Judge Jeffreys) reads, “Shadows we are and like shadows we depart”.

As for my own chambers, they are at the bottom of Middle Temple Lane, past the Middle Temple Hall where Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed. They were designed by the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Sir Charles Barry and overlook the Temple Gardens which has a statue in the middle engraved with the unlikely observation that “Lawyers were children once”.

As you go into a chambers, they still tend to reflect their surroundings in many ways with the names on the board, the shelves of old law books and the Punch cartoons of long-gone Judges. However, despite the daunting surroundings and the corporate nature of many of the clients, the feel of many chambers is homely and slightly dishevelled similar to the rooms of many academics. Barristers often spend their whole lives in one set of chambers and they come to regard many members of that chambers as an extension of their family and this comes through in the atmosphere.

Another thing which hits you early on is the contrast between the high status of many of the barristers and the poor quality of the work environment, despite the beauty of its architecture. Overcrowding, for example, and lack of central heating or air conditioning are common and some Chambers even operate a system of “hot-desking” with barristers sharing communal desks. However, it’s fair to say that many Chambers are now modernising and whilst most in London used to be based in the Inns of Court which surround the High Court, many are now moving out into commercial office space. Some are even buying their own buildings.

Chambers themselves are basically collections of self-employed barristers who have banded together to form a common unit with their joint income running into millions of pounds. They share their expenses through the payment of rent and with that hire clerks and administrators to run their practices. Unlike firms of solicitors, each barrister takes home only what he himself bills out. This means that their business model is to aim to maximise the earnings of the particular members and not necessarily continually to expand unlike many law firms. However, with the increasing competition at the Bar small chambers are finding that they have to expand to some degree in order that they can provide a broader support service for solicitors.

Technically in most chambers each member has an equal say. However, the appearance of democracy can sometimes be slightly illusory with many big decisions being taken by key committees and only in extreme circumstances would they not be rubber-stamped by a chambers’ meeting. The main players tend to be the head of chambers and the highest earners. This is not just based upon seniority but also upon the fact that contributions tend to include a percentage element and so it is sometimes the case that a minority contribute a disproportionate amount towards chambers’ expenses.

As for the day to day living on arrival in Chambers, there are various traditions which have to be taken into account. As with MPs, barristers traditionally don’t shake hands on meeting although this is now probably on the decline with the younger bar. Chambers tea sounds a pretty simple affair but it still takes some getting used to. Best advice for pupils on such occasions is not to pipe up with anything unless asked.

Becoming a member of a chambers is no mean feat and applications for pupillage are extremely competitive. Gaining a tenancy is even more so. However, for those with the ability, persistence tends to pay off and eventually you are likely to find a chambers which will suit you. The flip side of this competition is that it has transformed the bar into a meritocracy and any remnants of its slightly stuffier history and hints of possible snobbery have fallen by the wayside.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Chambers system is that at a time when economics points towards corporate life and the end of the old institutions, it has not only survived but is in fact flourishing. John Mortimer said that the Bar allowed people “To escape jury duty in England, wear a bowler hat and carry a copy of the Daily Telegraph.” Whilst the jury exemption and the bowler hats have now gone, there is no doubt that Rumpole or his contemporaries would still feel at home in a modern Chambers.

This is the second in a series of articles on Life at the Bar. The others can be found at:
Chambers (part 1)


Mr Pineapples said...

I am not sure that the chambers is system is flourishing. I hear so many tales of woe from the provincial bar.

I wonder what will happen when Clementi comes to the fore

Tim Kevan said...

Hi Mr Pineapples. Personally, I think Clementi will unleash a new energy for the bar as it wuill be less restricted in what it can do. Thanks for the comment.