What does ‘Modern Clerking’ actually mean?

Jul 23rd, 2018 by Hewetson & Co

This has been a question increasingly discussed at the Bar and in the wider legal profession as chambers and all their working parts have had to modernise over the last 20 years.

Chambers ask this frequently in the clerking interview process, law firms ask this of us and indeed of their clients.

Whether you are a Clerk, Practice Manager, Team Leader or Business Development Director it’s important to remember the job description is the same. The key is what sets a clerk apart from their contemporaries.

Clerking has changed dramatically over the last 20 years and that is self-evident when you see who is leading the clerking profession at the top tier sets across all areas of law. ‘Billy the clerk’ as dramatised on TV and the ‘barrow boy’ clerk of the Dickensian era – are now just that – romanticised lovable rogues of an era gone by.

Many chambers have increasingly been keen to inject graduates into their clerks’ rooms to mix up the dynamic and have seen it as a ‘modern’ and progressive approach.

Let’s be clear though – a degree purely means you have gained the skill set to learn a vast amount of knowledge and recycle as required. This is why barristers invariably are the brightest and most sought after minds in the legal sector and why QCs are the global pinnacle of legal excellence, and rightly so.

But that is not a pre-requisite for being a top tier clerk – never has, and never will be. The attributes for being a top tier clerk have not changed over the last 20 years – the fundamental thing that has changed? The need to justify that six figure salary. And rightly so, we believe.

A top tier clerk will be a sophisticated networker, a business generator, authentic, well-liked and possess the EQ (emotional intelligence) matching the academic prowess of any leading QC. Above all else is common sense – this is something which all clerks need.

A number of those traits are innate – not all clerks are made to be senior clerk, as with barristers able to become QCs.

Top tier clerks are exceptional at relationship building with a profound ability to sell a product, barristers.

Chambers, barristers and clerks have all been striving and continue to strive to be relevant in the ‘commercial world’ under the advent of law firms being increasingly aggressive in keeping their instructions in-house.

In the ‘commercial world’ an individual earning a six figure salary will invariably be degree educated, be target (sales) driven and ultimately be accountable for their position with the company.

In a law firm, fee-earners have to generate 3-4 times their salary to justify their annual earnings.

But here are the facts,

The Bar is the commercial world.

The Bar is a multitude of multi-million pound businesses.

The clerks are the bedrock of the Bar – without the clerks, there would be no Bar.

The successful clerks and successful chambers at the Bar are business partners. Members view their clerks as integral to the business generation of the myriad of business all under one roof.

For modern clerking to thrive the number of clerks fitting the ‘business generator’ brief versus the number of ‘diary management ‘clerks earning a significant salary, needs to narrow.

It is a moot point what a clerk earns when he or she is a business generator. It swiftly becomes a point when a clerk earns six figures to in effect just manage a diary and do admin.

Clerks are the lifeblood of chambers and more fool any chambers who thinks otherwise. And more fool a clerk if you think you now won’t be found out if you in fact are not the lifeblood the chambers so anxiously relies upon.

Practice Management is something which is often talked about. Clerks at all levels now need to be proactive and visible to their members. It’s vital for a clerk to understand each member’s ambition, after all, there is a human element to everything. Understanding objectives, initiating regular meetings with members is key to developing and implementing a long-term strategy. Setting short term realistic objectives builds trust and confidence in both the clerk and barrister.

Each barrister is ultimately a business and every business needs a strategy. A happy member equals a happy clerk. Showing an interest in their recent cases, their immediate and long-term availability generates confidence and shows barristers that clerks are on their side and ultimately have their best interests at heart. Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.

Reminding members to make frequent contact with their clients should form a big part. Client care is everything and members need to instil the same trust and confidence they get from their clerks in their clients. Clerks are of the belief that if an opportunity doesn’t come knocking, then you need to build a door.

Being a barrister can be a lonely existence, working solely has its advantages to most but a barrister’s wellbeing shouldn’t be overlooked. Managing expectations and daily communication is fundamental; barristers need reassurance just as much as everyone. Clerks need to be thinking ahead of their barrister at all times, always have a plan B.

This however is not always the clerks’ fault and the chambers has to provide the platform for success and more often the chambers is at fault in not realising, or even sometimes allowing, the full potential of their life source to thrive.

It’s our view that without transformation, there is no modernisation, creativity or incentive for enhancement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.

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