In England & Wales, most Barristers are self-employed individuals who work under umbrella structures that constitute Chambers. The people who are employed by Barristers’ Chambers to be responsible for running their practices and diaries are called Barristers’ Clerks.
A modern Chambers will also often employ other support staff such as dedicated fees clerks, IT specialists, receptionists and marketing assistants. As a result, modern Chambers are fully serviced operations.
A large number of clerks are members of the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks – the professional body for clerks. It is estimated that there are currently 1,200 members of the IBC. Traditionally referred to as ‘the Law’s Middlemen’, Clerks possess a unique skill set and fulfil a role in which they are considered to be experts in their own right. Clerking is seen as a career in itself rather than a stepping stone to becoming a Barrister.
The legal landscape has changed much in recent years and Clerks, Practice Managers or Legal Executives, as some are now called, have changed with it. Until fairly recently, little was known about the role of the Clerk and of the little that did exist, much was inaccurate. It is hoped that this short introduction will explain how to become a Clerk and the important roles they fulfil in today’s modern legal landscape.
Until the 1970’s, Clerks were generally exclusively male and mostly recruited straight from school. Today’s Clerks come from all genders and from diverse and multi-cultural backgrounds. Many still begin their careers from school but an increasing number enter the profession with degrees or expertise gained in other industries. Clerks were once recruited by word of mouth but these days the majority of jobs are advertised on the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks website, through legal recruitment agencies or on Chambers’ websites.
Minimum qualifications vary from set to set and most adverts for Clerking roles will specify requirements. As an absolute minimum, the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks recommends at least four GCSEs at grades A to C, including maths and English.
Introductory level training is available through a junior clerk course delivered via a bespoke e-learning portal with multi-choice, open questions, workbooks and an essay together with a one day face to face workshop and classroom assessment. The IBC provides a regular training programme of short directly relevant lectures in addition to an annual education focussed all day conference for its members. The IBC also provides in conjunction with UMD Profession access to an ILM Level 5 Diploma in Leadership and Management qualification designed for more experienced clerks.
However, the majority of training comes through the experiences and challenges you encounter and the guidance you receive on the job,the maxim ‘don’t run before you can walk’ is particularly apt.
Most Clerks begin their careers by undertaking a variety of administrative “office junior” type tasks, as well as those unique to Barristers’ chambers such as the vital role of ensuring that their barristers’ papers and other documents are taken to and from Court safely and on time. As they become proficient, a clerk will be given new responsibilities, greater autonomy and other roles. Although graduates may leapfrog these initial tasks, everyone is expected to ‘roll their sleeves up’ and help out when the need arises; no matter how senior they become.
Clerks go on to learn how to match a particular Barrister’s skillsets and expertise to an enquiry. They become highly proficient at introducinga Barrister to a potential client and ensure there is sufficient time in their diary to assist. Hearings at Court need to be fixed and fees agreed for undertaking work. As with all modern industries, targets need to be met and compliance adhered to.
Many Clerks sit on Chambers committees and provide valuable input at all levels of the administration. Others volunteer to sit on Committees outside of Chambers such as those operated by the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks, Bar Council or Court User Groups and help shape the direction of the legal profession as a whole. Clerks also have a crucial role in marketing their Chambers to the outside world. This will often entail attending and organising events and can even result in trips overseas; taking Chambers to new markets.
Through all of these roles, Clerks acquire a unique skill set which includes marketing, diary management, practice management, negotiation and sales.
But there is so much more to clerking than just the above. Clerks build up a close working relationship with their Barristers; they help shape their careers and offer support and advice as needed. The Barrister/Clerk relationship is one borne out of mutual reliance, loyalty and trust. It can often be difficult to tell whether the Barrister or the Clerk is in charge but both parties are aware that neither can exist without the other. Clerks also build up relationships with instructing solicitors which often helps generate repeat work. In addition, there is a great deal of camaraderie which exists between Clerks themselves, and the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks regularly organises social events to develop this further.
An attractive feature of the Clerking role is that no two days are ever the same. The advent of the mobile phone has removed the need to work long hours at a desk, although Clerks do need to be flexible with their hours when the need arises. The dress code is business attire and there are times when formality needs to be adopted e.g. at Court. In essence, the Clerking role is demanding but it is also very rewarding.
Clerks need to be adaptable and reactive; able to multitask as well as problem solve. They need to be able to think on their feet and be decisive. They need to be knowledgeable; good at acquiring and retaining information but also ready to share it and able to communicate it to others. Clerks need to have good interpersonal skills; be good at dealing with people be they Barristers, clients, court staff, Judges or other Clerks. They also need to have a good telephone manner, strong written skills and be computer literate. Clerks need to be well organised, have a good eye for detail and be able to work under pressure. For the most part they will work in a team but they also need to be able to work by themselves, as the need arises. Most of all Clerks need to be dedicated.