Golden life of the £350,000-a-year barristers' clerks

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The Independent Online

Barristers' clerks, who negotiate fees for cases, are now earning up to £350,000 a year - more than some QCs who have been practising law for 30 years.

Barristers' clerks, who negotiate fees for cases, are now earning up to £350,000 a year - more than some QCs who have been practising law for 30 years.

The figures, revealed in a profile of leading chambers, highlight an élite of senior clerks who left school after O-levels and have climbed to the top of their profession.

A group of seven senior clerks come from five "magic circle" commercial chambers whose barristers command the highest fees. Top of the table is David Grief, senior clerk at Essex Court chambers, who the Lawyer Magazine estimates is on £350,000 a year. He started as a junior clerk when he was just 17 years old. The second highest-ranked senior clerk is Robert Ralphs, estimated to earn £320,000.

Although the tax barristers at this chambers are estimated to be on as much as £1.5m a year, recent figures released by the Bar shows that, on average, leading QCs earn about £260,000 a year. Clerks earn their money by taking a certain percentage from the barristers' fees. This can be as much as 10 per cent but is usually between 1 per cent and 3 per cent. Others are on a salary and commission.

As barristers' fees have increased, a number breaking through the £1m-a-year barrier, so have those of their clerks. Mr Ralph's colleague Paul Shrubsall, who is estimated to have earned £280,000 last year as joint senior clerk at One Essex Court, said that to earn the very highest fees took many years of hard work and experience. But he stressed that a starting salary for a junior clerk was still no more than about £10,000.

He likened the business of clerking to that of being a theatrical agent. "It can be a bit of a panto but this is film star territory with some of the barristers.'' The key skill for a senior clerk was negotiating fees. This, said Mr Shrubsall, required a fine judgement. "You have got to have the ability to cope with a lot of pressure and to make very quick decisions about often complex deals. If you oversell or undersell your barrister, then people are going to get upset."

Barristers know a good clerk can make a young advocate's career and often, because of their close relationships with the solicitors who instruct the barristers, they have real power in chambers.

But Mr Shrubsall said the perception of the clerks' room as something out of a Charles Dickens novel was no longer true. "It's more like a dealing room with all of us sitting around a big table with state of the art technology," he added.

But still, very few clerks have a university education. Most of them go straight from school to the clerks' room and progress through a "sink or swim" form of training.

Ian Moyler, joint senior clerk at Brick Court chambers, estimated to be earning £130,000, said a good clerk was someone who understood the legal markets and the personalities of the barristers. "I left school with 5 O-levels and started as an office boy, but two years later was recruited by Brick Court."

In recent years the position of senior clerks had been challenged by the arrival of the cheaper "practice managers" who had usually come from outside the profession to provide a business structure to chambers. While some had been successful, the pendulum had swung back in favour of thesenior clerk after barristers discovered there was no cheap substitute for an experienced clerk who could negotiate multi-million-pound briefs quickly over the telephone.