Barristers' clerk

The Oxford Times: Russell Porter Russell Porter

Ask anyone what a barristers’ clerk actually does and they will probably produce some idea of a Dickensian-style character following in the hallowed footsteps of his wigged master.

But historically that image never told the full story and, despite the job title, today’s clerk is a kingpin of life in chambers, possessing a controlling influence over almost every aspect of the business.

The barristers’ world outside court is one has rarely been publicised but which contains fascinating characters, not least of which are the clerks themselves.

Back in the 18th century, Charles Lamb wrote a telling description of his barrister clerk father John’s responsibilities to Mr Salt, KC, (King’s Counsel).

He said: “He was at once a clerk, his good servant, dresser, his friend, his flapper, his guide, stopwatch, auditor, treasurer.”

Translated into modern day language, a clerk looks after the barrister and literally guides their career.

A young barrister, having just passed their exams and been called to the Bar, will come into a chamber as a pupil.

The pupil will then have to prove themselves fit to be given a ‘seat’ in the chambers for six to 12 months. Then the clerk will take them under their wing and try to ensure they develop their experience by introducing them to solicitors, building up cases and, accordingly, their reputation in a particular field during the four years of their pupillage.

The relationship can be critical to the success of a barrister, as they are self-employed. The particular chambers happens to be their base and as sole traders they effectively employ the clerk who also arranges their fees with the client, taking a small percentage for themselves.

Having completed his GCSEs, but with no desire to carry on into further education, Mr Porter, 32, joined what was then known as 3 Paper Buildings (named after its London address) straight from school at the age of 15 as part of the old Youth Training Scheme, one of the first ever clerks to do so.

His motivation was simple: “I wanted to earn money and make sure I met people because I came from a big family.

“The chief clerk gave me the opportunity to work for four days a week for six months. One day a week was spent at college doing a business and finance national vocational qualification (NVQ).

“They said if I did well, they would offer me a position. That was 18 years ago.”

Understandably, joining a barristers’ chambers as a fresh-faced Essex teenager must have been an awe-inspiring experience.

Clerks themselves have a hierarchical structure. They start at junior level, graduate to seniors and eventually become chief clerk in charge of the business of many barristers. And, ultimately, a firm will have a head of clerking.

Mr Porter said: “I was always given a career path and an incentive to learn the ethos.”

There are now about 35 clerks at 3PB looking after the affairs of 135 barristers, spread across ten practice groups in chambers based in Oxford, London, Winchester, Bristol and Bournemouth.

When Mr Porter joined the firm, there were about 15 barristers working there. He spent two-and-a-half years in London before moving to Oxford at the age of 17.

The Oxford base, now in Beaumont Street, was originally in Alfred Street and was set up by Leo Curran, still with the chambers, and more than 20 barristers are now based there.

As a junior clerk, Mr Porter was responsible for general adminstration, including opening post, and making tea for barristers and clients. But there are wider duties.

“The training is intensive. One minute you are dealing with a high court judge and the next a pupil. And everyone has to be treated the same.”

But even as a senior he is still willing to carry out the most minor of tasks.

“I am the front man for the chambers. I have to make sure everybody is happy. I will take the client’s coat and bring them a cup of tea.

“They are here for a reason, not usually a good one — they feel stressed, vulnerable, frightened and confused, and I have to hold their hand and make them feel they are going to receive a fair assessment and a solution to their case.”

Another part of Mr Porter’s job is knowing all of Oxford’s solicitors, understanding their specialisms and matching them with the barrister best equipped for their needs — “oiling the wheels,” as he puts it.

After that he has to ensure the relationship between client, solicitor and barrister runs smoothly, and on time.

And it is not just in Oxford that he builds relationships. His duties frequently take him to other parts of the country, when the barristers take cases in other cities as their reputation spreads.

The success of the firm is a result of a clear partnership between barristers and clerks.

Now this highly traditional world is undergoing modernisation. Over the last ten years barristers have become more open, attending, like solicitors, client functions and holding in-house seminars.

They are also a lot more commercially minded, a good example being that 3PB recently acquired Investor in People status.

And the wigs and gowns are starting to disappear, stripping away a little of the mystique, and emphasising the fact that these are highly experienced legal professionals representing the interests of the general public, if not in court, then through mediation or arbitration across a wide range of areas, from crime to technology and construction.

And, of course, Mr Porter is highly suited to this more business-like approach.

After all, it is exactly what barristers’ clerks have been doing for centuries.

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