Those old service sector jobs

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.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout, via the excellent Samir Varma.

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Clerking in London sounds a little like being a stagehand on Broadway or the Metropolitan opera, where the unionized workers can earn up to a half million dollars per year. Those workers are similarly almost all white men from the Outer Boroughs and related to other members of the Local.

I'd assume Broadway theaters are a managed by a profitable business organization. Those nice salaries are coming from ticket sales, as opposet to taxes in the case of court clerks.

These aren’t court clerks, Axa, and they’re not paid out of taxes. They’re the administrative staff of barristers and they earn a percentage of the legal fees brought in by their employers. And traditionally they haven’t been unionized.

duh! I missed the part about have nothing in common with US Supreme Court aides of the same spelling.

I think British clerks would not exist if there has ever been a revolution over there ;)

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According to the article, clerks sound more like sales people and business managers to barristers. The showbiz equivalent would be agents, not stagehands. Just like sales people and show business agents, the very best ones can make huge amounts of money based on the business they bring in.

It's interesting that this is a semi-hereditary caste of barristers' agents, almost all with Cockney ancestry. When Broadway stagehands are almost all Catholics related to other stagehands, you can point at the union for keeping it that way. But there's no obvious union in this case in London, so I wonder how it works?

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The stupid diversity issue has to show up at every single article.

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Actually, the clerks are intermediaries between solicitors and barristers, with the clerks referring clients who need a barrister to the barristers: clerks are the gate keepers and are paid for referrals not for assisting the barristers. The barristers go along with the arrangement because barristers, being exclusively independent trial lawyers, have no other dependable source of referrals. Indeed, the clerk even negotiates the barrister's fee with the client, taking a cut for his efforts. In America, trial lawyers often pay disguised referral fees to the lawyers who refer cases to them. I say disguised because lawyers are only allowed to collect a fee for actual legal work, so the referring and trial lawyer engage in a fiction in allocating responsibility between them. That type of direct referral arrangement between solicitors and barristers hasn't developed because of the elite status of barristers who wouldn't lower themselves to such mundane and low class tasks as negotiating fees or working the solicitors to gain their favor in making referrals.

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" 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."

They should revert to the fine old habit of referring to each other by surname, or a jokey version thereof.

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Gene splicers?

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This article has an interesting, if slightly oblique, relationship to Tyler's recent posts on non-conformity/weirdness.

Conformity is the rule in society, every society, everywhere, because that's what societies are, that's how they work. At the same time, every society has institutionalized roles for non-conformity, if you will. The simplest hunter-gatherer society allows shamans to be a bit different. In this case we have an advanced civilization where barristers are allowed to be eccentric. Why? More generally, where is eccentricity permitted and what social arrangements make it possible? In this case it would seen that use of clerks permits, even fosters? eccentricities among barristers.

At the end the article talks briefly about how some recent chambers – Doughty Street Chambers, Matrix Chambers – have broken away from this system. What effect, if any, has this had on the eccentricity "budget", if you will, of the barristers there?

Barristers' position in the class structure, and their self-employment, allows their eccentricity rather than employing an office manager with this name rather than with that name. For most of these men, and they are still by and large men, getting a few thousand pounds does not matter a lot. You see the same thing in the same demographic in English journalism, where the fees are obviously a lot less - but the upper-class people are never really hard up.

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'Silk', the BBC legal drama series, provides a good example of a clerks role and work.

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I swear there was an awfully similar article in the Economist years ago, just without the handful of interviews and the specific details on pay and rat poisons.

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