CRF Blog

The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks

by Bill Hayes

In England and Wales, lawyers are divided into solicitors, who prepare cases, and barristers, who go to court. Since they do not work in the same offices, the solicitors must somehow get barristers when cases are headed to court: That function is served by clerks, who are usually far less educated and of a lower social class than lawyers. In The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks, Bloomberg Businessweek explores this fascinating world.

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. [more]