Brian Lee


Job title
Senior Clerk, 20 Essex Street

20 Essex Street is a leading international set of commercial barristers’ chambers in London and Singapore specialising in international arbitration, commercial, EU, competition, insolvency and public international law disputes.

What have been some of the highlights of your career?
I am fortunate there have been more than a few. Being appointed Joint Senior Clerk here in ’96 was a proud day. I started clerking in ’76 in what is now Henderson Chambers for 8 years, then spent 4 years at Blackstone Chambers. I’ve been at 20 Essex Street since ’88. I was elected Chairman of the IBC in March this year, although it should be noted I was unopposed. However, my proudest moment is undoubtedly being instrumental in setting up the UK’s first fully staffed and full-time international chambers in Maxwell Chambers, Singapore in October 2009; I had been working on this behind the scenes since 2007. Meeting representatives from MinLaw and the AG’s Department in Singapore was great fun and a real eye-opener in discussing and planning with them for the future and how to succeed. That initiative has been a great success for 20 Essex Street.

Why have you been successful?
I don’t know how you would measure success. Anything I have achieved has been through the efforts of the team at 20 Essex Street. Working with a loyal and committed staff is a real pleasure. Being a senior clerk I hope I have influenced the way the junior staff operate, leading by example. Ours is the only chambers to have won twice the client service set of the year. I would also like to thank my wife, who is a saint.

As Chairman of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, what do you see as the future challenges for the Bar?
The challenge, as I see it, is the drastic regulation of the profession and the politicalisation of legal services.

As Maura McGowan QC emphasised at the recent Annual Bar Conference, the Bar should not be held to account by an oversight regulator whose stated position is, “to look forward to a future when the provision of legal services means more service and less legal”. Does that mean that work done in haste and having tea in conference is considered more important than the quality of work provided? It’s rather like asking Wayne Rooney to perform ball tricks like a seal in the world cup final to entertain the crowd and not be concerned with scoring goals. I also don’t think QASA is at all helpful to the profession. And you can see through political interference: whenever you get the Government doing something unpopular such as cutting legal aid yet again, the Lord Chancellor tells the newspapers what top earning QCs earned in the previous year from legal aid which leads to articles about ‘fat cat barristers’. For the Lord Chancellor to suggest anyone can make a ‘fat cat’ living on legal aid is disingenuous to say the least.

Delivery to clients of Access to Justice is becoming impossible because of the reduction of funding into the CJS. Equality of opportunity is being reduced due to increased tuition costs, a reduction in public funding and an increase in costs due to regulation. In addition with law becoming nothing more than a commodity, where quality may not be the overriding factor, there is a substantial increase in pleading work and advocacy done by solicitors particularly in the lower courts.

Against this background in severe cuts in legal aid plus over zealous regulation, running a set of chambers is becoming more and more paper intensive, less personal and more expensive in general terms. The challenge for the Bar is to make their practice more attractive to clients, by marketing to General Counsel, and for those fortunate enough, through international work, particularly arbitration, where overseas lawyers can see the benefit of using the Bar direct. The Bar needs to sell itself better.

There is a growing need for clerks to become more commercially astute and proactive in their duties. For chambers to benefit fully, do barristers have to do the same?
Clerks have always been pro-active in their marketing for chambers but have generally ignored overseas markets. I think it has been down to lack of foresight and lack of a budget for many chambers. But there has been great awareness in the last couple of years, especially in the Far East. From my own experience the clerk can open doors for the barristers and it is essential therefore that barristers are introduced to those potential new clients, so of course it is a team effort.

Relationships are just as important as reputation. Barristers need to invest not only money but time in building up those relationships. For example it’s no good seeing a client just once, you have to work on the relationship. If that contact is overseas, it may take three or four visits before you receive instructions. I have a feeling some chambers do not appreciate that and do not follow up on initial visits. You have to think long term in marketing; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It would also be good if the members of a chambers saw their clerks more as business partners.

What are the best and worst aspects about being a senior clerk?
The worst is people making unrealistic requests and asking the impossible, but that in itself can be fun with the challenges that are put before you. The best is building great relationships, not just internally and with clients but also with your competitors. Being a clerk poses many problems and you need as many friends as you can get. And of course helping young barristers blossom and senior barristers succeed.

What advice would you give to any junior clerk reading this?
Work hard, be happy and have a good sense of humour. All junior clerks should do the BTEC course run by the IBC. When interviewed many chambers ask if they have this qualification, so not sitting it may hinder your progress up the greasy pole.

How do you relax?
Golf and with anyone who will talk to me over a glass of wine.

Brian Lee was interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah.

Author details: 
Brian Lee

Brian Lee is one of the senior clerks at 20 Essex Street, chambers of Mr. Iain Milligan QC. He started his career as a clerk in 1976 at the chambers of Mr. Victor Lemieux in 2 Harcourt Buildings.  He was elected (unopposed) as chair of the IBC in 2013.

Brian Lee

Senior Clerk, 20 Essex Street.