SecretE-Diary - July 2011

The arduous process of giving a modern reference compares poorly with “days gone by”

June 14, 2011: Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction - Aristotle

Chambers is the professional embodiment of the truism about waiting hours for the arrival of a bus only to have three arrive together. Weeks pass for senior silks with much thumb twiddling, writing of letters and leisurely walks around the Temple. Solicitors are busily taking instructions in cases whose future appearance is but a small dark cloud on the horizon and no case management crises are looming.

The same days go by for a Head of Chambers with everybody content – a Mediterranean millpond of sunshine and happiness. The post-bag is light and our regulatory masters have a lull in consultations.

After last month’s brief flurry in the case of The Queen and Jason Grimble, the three weeks following were one of those halcyon periods: troubling financially, but refreshing physically and mentally. Then, the buses arrived en masse.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a reference. References for Silk, references for prosecution work, references for regulators, references for everything and everyone. Even our “daily” requires a reference for the Home Office. In days gone by, references were a relatively simple affair. If you knew a chap or chapess, you said what a jolly good person they were and that was that. It is worth recording here that I discovered early on, when tutoring a young man for the Oxford Entrance Examination, that there was also a civilised way of failing to recommend someone.

My young scholar came from a very well known public school. When trying to compile a composite reference for his Entrance form, I wrote to his former history master for a reference. “Silly old fool!” I thought, as I read his lengthy letter in reply. It talked about what an excellent prefect he had made, how he was a terrier of a fly-half on the rugby field and what a fetching Maria he made in a production of Sheridan’s School for Scandal. Unhelpfully, it omitted the mention of any aptitude for the history school to which he was seeking entry at the University. I telephoned the school to jog the mind of the venerable teacher, who was eventually tracked down to somewhere between the cricket ground and matron’s room and was put through to me on some ancient instrument. “Ah, Dr …”, I said, with respect since he was the author of a major historical text book that had pulled me through History “A” level. “You seem to have omitted any reference to Graham’s prowess as an historian.” His reply was short and simple – “Quite. He has none.” The perfect way to deliver a negative opinion was plainly silence. On the other hand, it clearly depended on a similar understanding of this code by the reader as well as the author, as I had demonstrated.

Nowadays, if you can finish reading the instructions on how to complete the reference without losing the will to live, you have then to complete pages of answers to questions with evidence-based examples covering everything from scholarship to diversity. Pages and pages of these awful things, apparently conveying objective material and taking hours to complete seem to me of less use than the three or four lines that had been sufficient hitherto.

No sooner had I started to deal with the first of these than Jacob Seeley, restored from his nervous disorder caused by the demands of his prosecution practice, was poking his head round my door asking if I had answered the vital consultation on “fusing the profession” – a document so dense that even my computer had crashed in sympathy whilst I was trying to read it online.

Putting aside the references to type out some baloney in answer to the consultation, more knocking at my door revealed three juniors wanting “quick” references to support their applications to various Inns of Court to become pupil supervisors. This was interrupted by someone from school, who had discovered me on Friends Reunited, telephoning to ask if I could give his nephew some advice on whether to take a gap-year before reading for the Bar. Ronnie, our junior clerk, then popped by to remind me that I still owed the Legal Services Commission vital documents with which to play the increasingly complex game of many snakes and few ladders by which one tries futilely to obtain the decreasing remuneration for ever more complex representation.

Sinking back into my specially padded leather swivel chair, which I had purchased recently in a moment of madness, the door burst open and in came Hetty Briar-Pitt. “Ah,” she said, “no time for rest! We’re together in Grimble. Solicitor’s managed to get a slot at the prison today. Up you get!”
Unlike her beloved horses, a bolt was sadly out of the question.....

William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.

William Byfield
Gutteridge Chambers