May 24, 2017

GEEZ, WHAT ARE UNDERTAKERS' MUTES MAKING?:

The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks (Simon Akam, 5/24/17, Bloomberg Businessweek)'

At Fountain Court Chambers in central London, the senior clerk is called Alex Taylor. A trim, bald 54-year-old who favors Italian suiting, Taylor isn't actually named Alex. Traditionally in English law, should a newly hired clerk have the same Christian name as an existing member of the staff, he's given a new one, allegedly to avoid confusion on the telephone. During his career, Taylor has been through no fewer than three names. His birth certificate reads "Mark." When he first got to Fountain Court in 1979, the presence of another Mark saw him renamed John. Taylor remained a John through moves to two other chambers. Upon returning to Fountain Court, in 2008, he became Alex. At home his wife still calls him Mark.

Alex/John/Mark Taylor belongs to one of the last surviving professions of Dickensian London. Clerks have co-existed with chimney sweeps and gene splicers. It's a trade that one can enter as a teenager, with no formal qualifications, and that's astonishingly well-paid. A senior clerk can earn a half-million pounds per year, or more than $650,000, and some who are especially entrenched make far more.

Clerks--pronounced "clarks"--have no equivalent in the U.S. legal system, and have nothing in common with the Ivy League-trained Supreme Court aides of the same spelling. They exist because in England and Wales, to simplify a bit, the role of lawyer is divided in two: There are solicitors, who provide legal advice from their offices, and there are barristers, who argue in court. Barristers get the majority of their business via solicitors, and clerks act as the crucial middlemen between the tribes--they work for and sell the services of their barristers, steering inquiring solicitors to the right man or woman.

Clerks are by their own cheerful admission "wheeler-dealers," what Americans might call hustlers. They take a certain pride in managing the careers of their bosses, the barristers--a breed that often combines academic brilliance with emotional fragility. Many barristers regard clerks as their pimps. Some, particularly at the junior end of the profession, live in terror of clerks. The power dynamic is baroque and deeply English, with a naked class divide seen in few other places on the planet. Barristers employ clerks, but a bad relationship can strangle their supply of cases. In his 1861 novel Orley Farm, Anthony Trollope described a barrister's clerk as a man who "looked down from a considerable altitude on some men who from their professional rank might have been considered as his superiors." [...]

Before the U.K. decimalized its currency in 1971, clerks received "shillings on the guinea" for each case fee. Under the new money system, the senior clerks' take was standardized at 10 percent of their chambers' gross revenue. Sometimes, but not always, they paid their junior staff and expenses out of this tithe. Chambers at the time were typically small, four to six barristers strong, but in the 1980s, they grew. As they added barristers and collected more money, each chambers maintained just one chief clerk, whose income soared. The system was opaque: The self-employed barristers didn't know what their peers within their own chambers were paid, and in a precomputer age, with all transactions recorded in a byzantine paper system, barristers sometimes didn't know what their clerks earned, either. Jason Housden, a longtime clerk who now works at Matrix Chambers, told me that, when he started out in the 1980s at another office, his senior clerk routinely earned as much as the top barristers and on occasion was the best-paid man in the building.

One anecdote from around the same time, possibly apocryphal, is widely shared. At a chambers that had expanded and was bringing in more money, three silks decided their chief clerk's compensation, at 10 percent, had gotten out of hand. They summoned him for a meeting and told him so. In a tactical response that highlights all the class baggage of the clerk-barrister relationship, as well as the acute British phobia of discussing money, the clerk surprised the barristers by agreeing with them. "I'm not going to take a penny more from you," he concluded. The barristers, gobsmacked and paralyzed by manners, never raised the pay issue again, and the clerk remained on at 10 percent until retirement.

Posted by at May 24, 2017 7:26 PM

  

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