When I became head of chambers, I remember having had a brief period of activity. This ceased for several reasons: first, I discovered an old truth: better the devil you know…Nature abhors a vacuum and barristers cannot abide calm. They are much happier if their lives are beset by a whole series of stress-inducing and largely intractable problems that can occupy that area of the brain designated to deal with “worry”. Being in a performance-based environment, they are used to the adrenalin-rush caused by crises and develop a whole series of mental and physical symptoms when it is removed. This is why many barristers find the idea of even a holiday much more enjoyable than the reality and why, however long they are given to prepare cases, they are still up in the small hours during most days of a trial. By solving their problems, you either cause unnecessary pain and suffering or, more likely, encourage them to develop new ones.
Second, once you develop any kind of reputation for being able to solve difficulties, you will be beset by all and sundry wishing to discuss concerns about their careers, their health, their colleagues, the clerks and even whether the milk should be skimmed or semi-skimmed. Finally, the only problems that really matter are not capable of solution in a set depending on publicly funded work. The state does not want to pay for high quality professionals to prosecute and defend crime, although it takes a different view when it is having to defend its own actions before the courts. Even then, some governments nowadays have the greatest difficulty in listening to home truths, including advice coming from an outstanding Attorney General. Every barrister knows that when a client starts sacking his or her own lawyers it is usually a question, as a distinguished colleague once accused a client of mine, of “failing to engage with the evidence.”
Thus, the head of chambers cannot do much to heal the wounds of members, particularly the younger ones, who sacrificed many years to obtain challenging qualifications and who themselves exhibit the most exacting, internationally recognised and admired professional standards in a world where our political masters care less and less about the profession or those standards, or even the physical state of the buildings in which justice is administered. Junior barristers find their incomes eroded year on year and their working environment so cheapened that the only relief comes from laughing at the latest Pythonesque nonsense.
The same is true of silks of course but, here, I am less sympathetic. We had our day: they never have had theirs. Stepping gingerly over the “50+” sun cream, which I had mistakenly purchased on the basis it was age, as opposed to exposure, related, I looked again at the questionnaire. Some of the questions were easy, others encouraged a rant, but then I came to an interesting one: what are the advantages and disadvantages of the Chambers system?
The advantages seemed to be numerous. A pool of highly motivated and competitive specialists who share a working environment with one another, but are otherwise independent. A system that encourages the highest ethical standards, but which has mutual support across the length and breadth of its structure with seniors helping juniors and vice-versa: almost a family.
The disadvantage is that we are in the right place at the wrong time. In the 20th century, this model gave expert service at reasonable cost in an environment that encouraged what the Bar had to offer. Now, certainly in crime, almost everything combines against us from the tax system to regulation. Indeed, the state only pays lip service to admiring our criminal justice system at all. It loathes and despises the publicly funded Bar. King John probably had more time for the barons. It begrudges us every penny and succeeds in raising our overheads dramatically, having reduced our income substantially and leaving it to diminish further by inflation without any hope of uprating.
I looked again at the scattered brochures on the study floor and the suitcases. I had suddenly gone off that holiday.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.