Barristers once wore bowler hats and pinstripes while their clerks trundled heavy textbooks to court, made tea and wrote out fee notes by hand. Fifty years on, the world of chambers is transformed – a revolution witnessed by a young ‘schoolboy’ clerk who rose to become one of the profession’s heavy hitters.

David Grief has just retired after half a century that began when, just 17, he entered the profession with almost no qualifications and rose to Senior Clerk, then Director of International Business Development at Essex Court Chambers, one of the ‘magic circle’ commercial sets with a multi-million pound turnover. ‘There really was mobility in those days: you could come in with no qualifications and reach the top – now it’s all about how many degrees you have.’

The role of the clerk has changed beyond recognition. Clerks are usually graduates with top degrees; the job has become professionalised. They run teams of staff under titles such as chief executive; have specialist marketing directors and office managers. ‘It’s like being the manager of a football team,’ Grief says.

Now 67, when Grief started out he did not even know what a barrister was. But he bumped into a family friend, the late Keith Goodfellow,QC, who suggested he come in for work experience. Two job offers followed: ‘It was very different, just in terms of size but also it was pre-computers, pre- the internet, pre- everything: when there was the miners’ strike and a three-day week we wrote fee notes under gas lamps.’ 

Grief’s career parallels that transformation. He broke new ground, for instance, in being ready to engage with clients. Sir Bernard Eder, the former High Court judge who was a member of Essex Court, says: ‘To develop work, he would have regular meetings with solicitors in City firms and travel round the world at least once a year – with frequent visits to major cities including Hong Kong and Singapore as well as New York and the Caribbean. He strongly believed in personal contacts – from the senior partner at the top to the young junior associate at the bottom.’

That was how, adds Eder, Grief ‘came to know the important players in all the major international law firms personally – and they would often turn to him for advice to help to put together the best team of barristers for a particular case. They trusted his judgment and came to rely heavily on his advice and recommendations. Foreign law firms would sometimes even seek his advice with regards to selecting a London firm of solicitors to assist in a case.’

Grief became first junior clerk at Gray’s Inn Chambers and by 23, moved to be senior clerk at 17 Old Buildings. ‘It’s unheard of now – did they make people differently in those days?’ he asks. But he always had his eye on the jewel of what was then called 4 Essex Court and achieved his ambition by the age of 26, taking over in 1980 as senior clerk. ‘That was my key move – it was regarded as the best job going. It was a fast-moving commercial set, like an escalator – a challenge to keep up with. So, I started at Gray’s, went to Lincoln and ended in The Temple – the next stop was the river!’

When he joined in October 1980 there were seven silks and 14 juniors. Now it is 41 silks and 58 juniors. Clerks in those days were paid a percentage of their barristers’ fees (not fixed salaries) and Grief was one of the biggest earners, if not the biggest. He clerked some of the biggest names in the business: John (Lord) Thomas of Cymgiedd, who became Lord Chief Justice; the late Gordon Pollock, QC; Sir Anthony Coleman (former High Court judge), Mark (Lord) Saville, former Supreme Court justice; Sir Anthony Evans and Sir Konrad Schiemann, both former Court of Appeal judges, and others. 

As with other commercial sets, there was huge expansion, a move to brochures, then to marketing and entertainment of solicitor-clients. ‘I don’t like the word corporate or business because chambers are a bunch of individuals and I’ve tried to keep the family atmosphere,’ Grief says. But he does not lament the increased professionalism of clerks and chambers. Gordon Pollock, who headed the set for 20 years, did not favour solicitors being invited over the threshold.Grief sometimes risked Pollock’s annoyance and went ahead with events anyway (although not the lavish parties seen at some sets): ‘In time Gordon changed his tune and he was first in line. It’s how the Bar evolved, you couldn’t resist it, really.’

Size changed his role: Essex Court Chambers, where Grief led a team of 36, was one of the first sets to recruit an office manager and to have a management company. Clerks had to be the administrator, human resources director, confidante and counsellor – managing barristers’ careers but also holding their hands through highs and lows in their private lives, divorce, weddings, illness. ‘It can be a lonely job: sometimes members of chambers don’t like you and your staff don’t like you either. You’re caught in the middle.’

As well as growth came a significant burden of regulation and the need to embrace a variety of expertise, recalls Carolyn McCombe. Now a consultant with 39 Essex Street and formerly Chief Executive of 4 Pump Court, she says: ‘Most chambers have recognised that to run an efficient, multi-million pound business you need a range of skill sets which the traditional, all powerful “senior clerk” cannot embody. I don’t see that as necessarily the end of “big name” senior clerks (practice directors/chief executives or whatever else they call themselves) as they still hold the pivotal and outward facing position as far as their barristers and chambers’ clients are concerned…but they could not do their jobs without the support of the other professionals who now work with them.’

Paul Shrubsall, retired senior clerk from One Essex Court who was a few years ahead of Grief, agrees that growth and enhanced professionalism in the running of chambers are the big changes: ‘Also, the need to compete in a multimedia world where all the clients expect to have access to you 24/7. In other words, welcome to the modern world. I have always thought that one of the greatest strengths of the Bar is its ability to adapt and it has done it superbly over the decades.’ Size makes difficult the very close personal relationships that he and Grief had with their barristers in the early days; it exists but to a lesser extent, he adds. ‘The difference is that now it will be between the barrister and his or her team leader, who in turn reports to the senior clerk.’

Grief was the first senior clerk to go regularly to the provinces and meet law firms in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. He then started to travel to promote the Bar abroad. It was his forte: ‘growing’ the international side. His vision was to be the ‘strongest public international law team in the world’. 

It had a knock-on effect throughout the commercial Bar, Lord Thomas recalls. ‘David’s acute understanding of the way the Bar and international legal practices have been developing since the 1980s has shaped the future of those who were clerked by him. His leadership has and continues to enable the Commercial Bar to make the most of global opportunities [and this was] always accompanied by his kindness in helping all, whether they were his barristers in need of support at a time of personal difficulty, or lawyers in the UK or elsewhere who needed advice, sometimes on a simple matter,’ he adds.

Lord Saville, the retired law lord, agrees, attributing to Grief much of the commercial Bar’s internationalisation. ‘Through his energy and hard work he encouraged litigants from all over the world to use [the Bar] and also encouraged the arbitration side.’

Two years ago, Grief went to Singapore to help set up a set of chambers there. Now, with 50 years working in the profession under his belt, he is embarking on setting up an international consultancy – what he calls his ‘second innings’

‘I’ve done a lot for Singapore and I can do a lot more,’ he says. ‘This is the centre of the world from the time difference point of view; two hours from Sydney, eight to London, 12 to the States.’ He will ‘clerk some barristers; help with the public international law group at Essex Court Chambers, mentor younger lawyers; advise law firms with business development and help clients find lawyers’. 

‘I am doing what I have always done – clerking – but now it is for a select number of lawyers around the world with me based in Singapore, a country I increasingly consider home. Being independent allows me to shape my practice.

Grief may be leaving the world of chambers; but he still loves the law, the cases that make a ‘great fight in court’. If he has any regrets, it is that the legal profession, as with banking and insurance, has become more about money. ‘The money always came with it, but it wasn’t all about that,’ he reflects. It’s been a great career and it has served me well.’ 

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Times on 16 September 2021.