I don’t deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either
February 29, 2024 –Jack Benny

Three things came together for me this week despite their being apparently unconnected. First, my friend Paula (who should know better) went skiing and managed to break her leg. Second, I found myself trapped at home with a combination of some 24-hour bug and my belief that there was a train strike. Third, Andrew my senior clerk rang me to say that I needed to get a new stock of cards printed, replacing QC with KC.

A fourth event also occurred which turned out to be connected to the other three. Having exhausted all other forms of entertainment, I started reading some some press coverage on Bar Standards Board proposals about rating sets of chambers. This happened to join up the dots above.

The golden age that older barristers hark back to never really existed any more than regular sunny summer holidays in England. Things were different, though. Advertising and, in particular, self-advertisement, was forbidden. You could carry a card, but only a personal one. Arguments raged over whether placing QC on your personal card was advertising. There were some attempts to produce directories (tame by today’s standards) and London papers occasionally produced articles such as ‘London’s Top Twenty Barristers’ to huge derision from the profession. They included among the great and the good a few others who must have had a journalist friend. Thomas Tompkins, for instance, was a wonderful person but struggled even in a shoplifting case. I remember the gale of laughter in Inner Temple tea-room. ‘Thom Tom?’ someone shouted with tears coursing down her face.

At the risk of being demoted from ‘Leading Silk in Crime’ to oblivion, it also made me think of the blissful days before the ‘directories’ started up in earnest. I make clear now that I have always enjoyed guides to services and places. I was a faithful purchaser of a particular food guide for many years. It was very good. Not only did the editor’s taste and mine seem to coincide exactly, but the reviews were so clever, succinct and perspicacious. It was a delight to read just as a book and informed many of my eating choices. One thing I am sure about is that it never asked the restaurants to review themselves or take part in the process at all except perhaps to answer a question about their future. A second aspect of the reviews was that they told you the bad things about restaurants they reviewed, along with their particular qualities and expertise.

An example of what we go through now was provided by Giles Shillingworth KC in a recent case in which I prosecuted and he defended. ‘I’ll do you if you’ll do me,’ he said. That sort of comment no longer even raises a childish look or laugh. Any trial barrister would know what he meant: will you do a reference for me in the directories if I do one for you? If it isn’t the directories after you for information, it is your clerks or marketing directors bullying you to meet deadlines. The reviews produced are peculiar in two ways when compared with, for instance, food guides. Our true customers, the lay clients, the diners if you like, don’t get a look in and second, never a word of criticism or comment on what we do less well ever appears – the danger being that this can just become one giant back-slapping exercise.

There is much useful information in them of course. My friend Paula wants to sue her travel company for the skiing accident. Naturally she rang me. Of course, I haven’t the faintest idea who does that kind of work. Yet, with one of the directories on my knee, which I flicked through silently as we talked, I could suggest an excellent team. Criminal barristers know the good from the bad among our colleagues and the skiing accident lot out there know that too. I regret to confess that I made it sound as though it was my unbelievably wide knowledge that allowed me to give the answers.

Nevertheless, as another round of cooperating with the directories continues (through increasingly gritted teeth from my colleagues I notice) and while not overlooking the numerous useful features they provide, there is a discussion to be had on the methodology of obtaining the information about individual lawyers and whether a review is worth much if it can’t be warts and all. The fact that this latter feature might inhibit lawyers taking such a central role in the process might, in fact, in terms of authenticity be no bad thing.