I had modestly congratulated myself for staving off an attempted coup d’etat a few years ago, even though the triumph had been somewhat marred by my old friend, Paddy Corkhill, swinging the waverers by pointing out that whilst I might be pretty mediocre, what was bound to follow would be even worse. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. And so it had always been in Chambers. Remember those kings of the ancient world who were feted for a season or two, before being sacrifi ced, as immortalised by Sir James George Frazer in “The Golden Bough” and Edward Woodward in “The Wicker Man”? That is what it was like to be a Head of Chambers when I was young, although the season was long and could extend to decades.
Now, it is the complete opposite. The role has no feudal trappings and consists in an uncomfortable mixture of Regulator, Human Resources Manager and Agony Aunt. After an increasingly brief honeymoon, only the vainest Heads do anything other than pray it might mercifully be brought to an end. But it is wholly impossible nowadays to stop being head of a publicly funded set of chambers and for the simplest of reasons – no-one else wants the job.
Vague references to “time for a change”, “all things come to an end” and “I’ve been thinking how I want to spend my last few years” are met initially with shrieks of laughter and then very deep concern – once they realise you might mean it. “But William,” they say, with a heart-warming vote of confidence, “who else would do it?” Indeed, I have a close friend who was elected to his second term of office whilst unconscious in Intensive Care.
Another major change is even less surprising. In the not-too-distant past there was a debate about whether a junior tenancy should be the equivalent of a partnership for life. Now a publicly funded Chambers may expect it to be a question more likely to be asked by the new junior tenant than Chambers. Who can blame the juniors? What sort of career structure is provided by a publicly funded Bar than can only offer constantly eroding fees with the probability of even deeper cuts; the certainty of a decreasing work base and a weakened, devalued and uncertain Silk system which is the pinnacle to which the most talented are supposed to aspire? How are we supposed to persuade them that the years of sacrifice and debt are worth the likely rewards?
So I had a heavy heart when Louise Spooner, our junior tenant taken last year, asked if she could have a word with me in private. Not being able to face the Headmaster’s study I whisked her over to a nearby hostelry. The South American waiter swivelled his hips over and obtained us some champagne: “the ‘alf bottle is a much better valuer than the glasses.” Louise asked if he was pouting at her or me. Either way, it shows how appearances can be deceptive. “William,” she said, “I feel really bad about this.” One of the more welcome effects of the end of feudalism is that the junior tenant will talk to the Head of Chambers as though she has known him for 40 years. “I have had an opportunity to be seconded to a regulatory organisation who will want most of my time for the next few years.” I began to speak but was cut short. “I know what you’re going to say: ‘good of chambers’, ‘learning the ropes’, ‘building a practice’ etcetera etcetera, but the truth is that it is about as much use as the Captain of the Titanic telling the cabin boy that he’ll soon find his way around the ship and needs to get to know his passengers.” I tried to look doubtful. “And,” she said, “the clerks say it’s fine as long as I don’t leave.” Yes, they would, I thought; remembering to have a word later with Andrew. Another one they do not have to worry about. “So we have hit the iceberg already, Louise,” I responded. The incredulous tones of our very own cabin boy were then heard. “You really want ice in your bubbles, boss?”
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.