A look at the battle tactics and power struggles that have governed the reigns of Heads of Chambers since the beginning of time...
March 11, 2012: “Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.” - Niccolo Machiavelli
March is the season of our Annual General Meeting. In times gone by this was a rather jolly affair in which we took rooms at leading London hotels and had a good old natter, followed by a decent lunch. There has, however, been a tendency to slum it in recent times. We have started hiring conference rooms with decidedly inferior cuisine or pokey little rooms in the Inns. However, the siting of this year’s meeting at a church hall in Hackney represented a new phase in our existence.
I have always viewed myself as a liberal Head of Chambers, although a number of members view my complex committee structure as a mask to cover benevolent despotism. My guide to running a set of Chambers successfully would certainly not rank alongside The Prince.
My most important rule is to speak to fellow heads of other sets. Rather like eighteenth century European monarchs, we are a distinct club: defending and promoting our nation states, decrying our rivals and competitors, whilst only too aware that we have a common interest in protecting each other from revolution and the guillotine – though sadly unable to do much when we see one of our number tumble to the slings and arrows of the discontented.
At the start of the reign, it is very important to stress that Chambers elected us. This is, in my experience, rarely true. We are elective in the same way that the British monarchy is elective. The heralds – in our case the Silks – announce the new monarch after, at best, a Papal-style election and there is a reedy cheer of acclamation, led by the clerks. Then, before you know where you are, the true article of legitimacy – the compulsory advertisement in Counsel magazine – is published.
It has a strangely cloying sound: “Chambers is pleased to announce that Mr Well Known Old Slimebucket QC has been elected as Head of Chambers. Chambers wishes to thank Mr Just Got Unceremoniously Toppled QC for his many years of service to Chambers.” Indeed such are the economies of scale nowadays that this is usually combined with the announcement of a few staff changes and a couple of new tenants.
Apart from the regrettable network of “deep throats” and spies, which even the most democratic Head of Chambers must use, a simple and relatively inexpensive early expedient is to dash around Chambers with an ink stamp, printing one’s name on every book, newspaper and available artefact. If you say it is “your Chambers” enough times, people will come to believe it. Do not wait for the clerks, librarian or tenant in charge to act! It will be too late. If you have to use your fingernails to prise your name from some lowly position on the board before nailing it on top, do so.
Listening at keyholes should be avoided after ten years call as it looks rather desperate. Bugging equipment can be dangerous – particularly if your set does the kind of work that encourages spooks to appear from time to time to perform security sweeps. However, in times of crisis, I can recommend the judicious reassembling and reconstruction of the contents of selected wastepaper baskets in the rooms of potential rebels. Interception of e-mail traffic is tricky, but you can be comforted by the fact that at least one clerk can show you how easy it is; whilst omitting to mention he is accessing yours too.
In the end, it comes down to the old Roman expedients of war on the one hand with bread and circuses on the other. So, this year, as I walked inside exactly on time and mounted the podium in that dingy church hall, feeling rather like Louis XVI about to address the National Assembly, I announced that, as far as the CPS fee cuts were concerned, we would fight, fight, fight! The cheers rang out. Then I said there would be a huge party to celebrate Hetty Briar-Pitt’s engagement to Mr Justice Pennington. My success was unbelievable and astonishing. A group of juniors rushed forward led by the mealy-mouthed Twist brothers and a swaying Paddy Corkhill and I was carried outside on the shoulders of the mob, scattering a group of ill-assorted youths who were milling nearby, doubtless for nefarious purposes or some free advice.
A personal triumph for my philosophy? Not exactly. It transpired that the bride-to-be had arrived an hour earlier, glowing in some diaphanous gown, with numerous bottles of Bollinger that were promptly consumed by those present before the church clock chimed ten. Machiavelli’s Prince? This was Dante’s Inferno.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.