About Barristers' Clerks

"Clerk" is one of those words which can be misunderstood because it has at least two meanings. In the Middle Ages the ability to read and write was mainly the preserve of the clergy and "clerk" (which term comes from the same root) meant "scholar" and was a name which came to be incorporated in many official titles such as Town Clerk, Clerk of Works, and Court Clerk. However in the 20th Century the word "clerk" came also to be used for office workers who carried out routine tasks generally with little autonomy. A barrister's clerk is a clerk in the older sense of the word.

Unlike an Articled Clerk, who is a trainee solicitor in a firm of solicitors, a Barrister's Clerk is not a trainee barrister. A Barrister's Clerk has a different role, managing a barrister's practice. 

All barristers are self-employed individuals and if you engage a barrister you do so on the basis that there will be times when the barrister will be engaged doing work for other clients, on holiday or ill, and so will not be immediately available to do further work which you may ask for, such as further advice or drafting a document. If you can't wait then you have the option of engaging a different barrister for the next piece of work but that will generally be more expensive - because the new barrister will have to take time to familiarise themselves with the case before they are in a position to carry out the next piece of work - so generally you will want the original barrister to do the work if possible. If the original barrister is unavailable the barristers clerk will be able to advise when the original barrister is likely to be available to do the work and, if that is not soon enough, the clerk should be able to give you a choice of other barristers who could do the work. The clerk can do this because they are also the clerk to other barristers in the same chambers.

The original reason why a clerk will be clerk for more than one barrister is a practical one. A barrister’s clerk will deal with enquiries, manage the barrister’s diary, and quote fees for a barrister but this work, for a single barrister, would not occupy the clerk full time. Yet the clerk needs to be employed full time to be available to deal with enquiries which come in. The cost-effective solution to this problem might be for, say, ten barristers to jointly engage a clerk. But in fact, of course, a clerk will have days off – holiday, sickness and training for example – so more than one clerk will be needed to ensure that there is full-time cover so, in reality, rather than having 10 barristers in chambers with one clerk, chambers will often have 30 or 40 barristers and 3 or 4 clerks. 

Some chambers only have barristers who do civil work, or only have barristers who do criminal work, or only have barristers who do family work, but many have a mix and, in those chambers, clerks normally specialise to some degree. One clerk will deal with civil work, one with criminal work, and one with family work, or depending on the amount of work it might be, say, two clerks dealing with civil work, one clerk for criminal work, and one for family work. This is because there are separate courts and tribunals for civil, criminal, and family law with different procedures and working practices. 

"Chambers" is an old word for "rooms" and this was the original idea - that barristers would each rent a room in a building with other barristers. Nowadays the physical premises are less important as, with the internet, many barristers work largely from home, using chambers mainly as a place to meet clients, and even there in some cases the most appropriate and convenient place to meet clients will not be in chambers - I, for example, travel throughout England and invariably meet clients at their own premises so that I can see the land which I am asked to advise on.

In fact usually when people talk about barristers' "chambers" they are referring not so much to the premises but to the barristers as an organised group because, although each barrister is independent and self-employed, for some purposes it makes sense to act as a group and this is where sharing a clerk - originally done for efficiency reasons - has the benefit that the clerk also can have a role in representing chambers as a whole in appropriate circumstances. Keeping up contacts with repeat customers is an example. Most individual clients who engage a barrister direct will only have one or two legal matters in their lifetime for which they need a barrister and they will often contact a barrister after seeing the individual barrister's website. But some clients, including large retailers, large property owners, and public bodies, are repeat customers, and part of the role of the clerk is to forge links, on behalf of chambers as a whole, with repeat customers. Repeat customers can, of course, engage any barrister in any chambers but, knowing that they have a constant need for legal services, repeat customers will typically have a shortlist of chambers and will want to keep in touch with clerks in each chambers and be kept abreast of the developments - new barristers joining chambers, existing barristers who are developing practices in new legal areas - so that they are prepared to decide who to engage (and who else to engage if their first choice is not available) when needed. In addition to large repeat clients who engage barristers directly, in some cases clients engage barristers through solicitors and in that case even if the clients themselves are not repeat customers, the firms of solicitors through whom barristers are engaged are repeat professional clients with whom clerks also develop and maintain links. 

This page was lasted updated in November 2019Disclaimer