My experience for the last 20 years has been predominately criminal work but it was important to me to recognise the loyal Western Circuit client base and identify the needs on circuit. I therefore brought in an experienced well-known Western Circuit Family and Civil clerk and as a consequence we have grown in numbers significantly in these areas since the beginning of 2013.
How does the future of the Criminal Bar look to you?
With the rise in the numbers of in-house advocates for both prosecution and defence work the competition is stronger than ever. The independent Bar needs to be commercially aware as well as capable of offering an unparalleled service to its solicitor and lay clients. There will always be a need for criminal advocacy in what is still a very fine judicial system but the independent Criminal Bar has to embrace a more streamlined, business-like mentality. Independent practitioners have to understand that there is much more to success than simply what happens in the four walls of a courtroom. In the words of Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”
What is your view on barristers needing to become more commercially savvy?
It seems to me that many of the ‘old guard’ can often be seen resting on past glories - resulting in difficulties accepting the modern position and the competition that the Bar faces with in-house advocacy. In my experience the Junior Bar, having never known the glory years, is often hungrier. They are prepared to go the extra mile to service the needs of their clients, frequently in spite of the fact that they will not be paid. With savage cuts in legal aid rates and hugely increased competition, chambers are having to change their model and cut costs accordingly. Our overheads have reduced by almost a third since I started in January 2012.
What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
My first senior clerk Roger Plager was a legend on circuit, admittedly during far easier times for the Bar. I was told on my first day “Daren, if I call them John, you call them Mr Smith. If I call them Mr Smith, you call them Sir…and if I call them Sir, don’t even dare talk to them.” He also said it was the best unqualified job imaginable.
What are the best and worst aspects of being a senior clerk?
I respect individuals as self-employed entities but it’s also important to me that the barristers and staff see the big picture. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works. It goes without saying that you can’t please all the people all of the time. Often tough business decisions have to be made in order that the big wheel keeps turning. Managing expectations is a key skill of a senior clerk.
Having clerked people from very junior tenant into silk, watching a young barrister’s career develop and knowing you’ve had input and influence in the development of their practice is something I’ll never tire of. I suspect if you ask every senior clerk at every set they will say the same; the moment you stop caring and the job becomes a chore, the relationship between barrister and clerk is over.
As a senior clerk my greatest achievement has been the successful opening of our Portsmouth office in such difficult and austere times. I’ve managed to make huge internal financial cuts and organised chambers’ finances by working closely with our Chambers Manager to ensure we can afford state of the art purpose built offices in the heart of Hampshire with no increase in our overheads. It shows what can be achieved through proper chambers management, team leadership and a belief. I am fortunate to have a very strong and encouraging management committee behind me. The downsides to the job are few but having a thick skin is certainly a must.
What is your view on the validity of the Government’s term ‘access to justice’?
The phrase ‘access to justice’ is something I believe in but how it’s interpreted is another matter. Competitive tendering without adherence to quality can never be justice.
In case Chris Grayling is reading this, you’ve been at the Criminal Bar for over 20 years - have you always been surrounded by ‘fat cat legal aid barristers’?
In my time I’ve clerked some of the very best advocates in the South Eastern and Western circuits. I don’t recognise the terminology ‘fat cat legal aid barristers’. The drama for the press of highlighting so-called over-paid middle class middle-aged men makes for good reading for the general public but nothing could be further from the truth. In the past 10 years all I have seen are highly dedicated professionals working longer and longer hours for ever-decreasing return. Despite demoralising cuts, the independent Bar still offers an unsurpassed service to the public.
How do you relax away from work?
Walking my beloved basset hounds Sherlock and Watson, fine wine, terrible kitchen dancing whilst cooking floury-nosed, and my weekly curry.
Daren Milton was interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah.