Insufferable superiority

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 27 April 2003

If solicitors are the foot-soldiers of the legal profession, barristers are the paratroop regiment. They swoop in only when the going gets tough, razor sharp minds at the ready, coruscating wit never less than a sentence away. Their renowned excellence entitles them to treat solicitors – shoulders broad from carrying so many bundles of documents, but incapable of a decision at the front-line – as the incompetents that we are. You get used to this, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

My first experience of the divide that shall never be breached was as an ingénu articled clerk, back in the days when articled clerks existed. Nowadays they are trainee solicitors, as if to deny their essential clerkness. I was loitering in one of the hallways in the Royal Courts of Justice, having sat through an interminable judicial review hearing. Something deeply dull was being reviewed. It staggered me that anyone could stay awake as file after file was poured over, points of public policy invoked and discarded, the gloom enlivened by the occasional dry aside from the judge.

Afterwards, barristers and solicitors huddled together, plots and schemes rustling amidst their gowns. At an appropriate moment I was called over by a senior solicitor, to be introduced to our Q.C. “This is Alex Wade,” she said, “He has just joined us.” Smiles all round, how gratifying to exist. I held out my hand to shake that of his eminence. He looked at it with disdain and turned away.

What had I done? I had committed a cardinal sin. Barristers are not supposed to shake hands with solicitors, outside court. They have a rule-book that makes this very clear. What a fool I was, to have proffered my artillery-man’s hand!

A little while later, on another case, I had to help the barristers’ clerks deliver bundles of documents to the court each morning. Rather proudly, I had arranged them all in easy-to-retrieve stacks, colour-coded and worth every penny of my £80 an hour charge-out rate. One day, though, I made another dreadful error. At around 10.20, just before the court would begin hearing the case, sundry crack barristers arrived. One of them spotted me lurking in the row reserved for her and her kind, a row from which mere solicitors (trainee or otherwise) were banned. She looked at me with a withering look, one that spoke amply of her vast intellect, wealth and breeding, as opposed to my own impoverished background, one of drug abuse, stints in schools for the maladjusted and red-brick universities.

“What do you think you are doing?” she said, icy words making Court 13 seem even colder. “I was arranging your papers,” I said. She shook her head. “Well, could you…?” The words trailed off, as if to finish the sentence would be to waste too much energy. But she added a gestural flourish, a wave of her hand rather as one dismisses an errant woodlouse. The sum of her words and actions was: “Kindly fuck off from my row, you little varmint.”

Once, in court for a copyright matter, our own barrister asked that the court consider the content of my firm’s letter, that in the trade known as the ‘letter before action.’ But he did so with the words: “Now, no one pretends that solicitors’ letters before action are works of great fluency, or even good English, but…”. Note: he was on our side. We had instructed him.

What is that we poor solicitors have done? What evil crime from the Medieval age makes this our legacy? To be eternally inferior, unable even to write English, let alone speak with any real articulacy in a court of law? We may have rights of audience, but solicitor-advocates are still as rare as Roy Keane and humility.

As Richard Desmond’s lawyer, I was lucky enough to work with a barrister. He was a good lawyer and became a good mate too. The pair of us set off to some Godforsaken County Court one morning. There was no real need for the two of us to attend, but I wanted to witness eloquence in action, to see just what it is that distinguishes the bar from mere mortals such as myself. We strode into the court. My friend rose magisterially. I admired his poise, still more the elegance with which he said: “Sir, we are here today…” before being cut down by the judge. “Order as prayed,” said the latter, “Next.”

It was as simple as that. All you had had to do was stand up and say “Sir, we are here today…”. As my mate said, “Stick with me and you’ll learn all you need to know.”