Two “Silks”  taken by Stephen Harvey Smith

The longer you  live in a different country, the easier it is for your feelings of wonder to slip away. Although this is part of settling in and getting comfortable in a new place it is a bit of a shame to lose the initial excitement of another culture. However, there are ways to recapture it by discovering  a culture within the culture. The classic examples are  ethnic or religious minorities who manage to be part of the majority culture while respecting their own traditions and history. A less obvious example of an internal culture are particular professions like the legal profession.

Justice and law related professions are fascinating subjects in any country especially if you enjoy history. Despite the existence of  international law and tribunals and the number of lawyers working across borders, legal systems absolutely reflect the cultures in which they exist. The various US television lawyers shown across the world have given others an inkling of our system, but Americans find it difficult to capture similar insights without leaving the US so investigating a legal system or just the legal profession abroad is a wonderful voyage of discovery.

Britain has an incredibly rich legal heritage and for an American an incredibly complicated one as well.  To begin with two different systems operate here.  English law (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and Scottish law in Scotland. It is not merely a question of procedures. Scottish law is based on the roman law systems operating in France and other continental states. English law will be more familar to Americans, 12 on a jury rather than 15 in Scotland and similar reliance on common law and precedent.  In English and American law we have verdicts of “guilty” and “not guilty” but in Scotland jurors have the option of a third verdict of “not proven.”

Britain-wide there are two kinds of lawyers, solicitors and barristers. Although the lines are blurring somewhat,  to keep it simple barristers are legal specialists whose job is to present the case in court. Gathering the background material, witnesses, the prep work  — all of this is done by solicitors who then hand all of this to the barrister if the case needs to go to court.  Because most legal work in any country (such as wills and contracts) do not require court representation there are many more solicitors than barristers.  Their smaller numbers plus the fact that barristers normally became the judges and attained honors (titles like “Sir”) traditionally made barristers an elite within the legal profession.     Barristers like other professions have ranks or job titles based on experience or choice.

The fun part of learning about barristers is actually their particular vocabulary.  Barristers work in “chambers” not in law firms. They are not law partners sharing profits for the firm. They are “tenants” (members) contributing to joint administrative costs like rent or secretarial help but the fees they earn they keep for themselves.  A newly qualified barrister works for a chambers and is called a “pupil.”  The barrister they train with is  called a “pupil supervisor” (formerly “pupil master or pupil mistress” in the old sense of a master meaning a teacher.) The chambers has no obligation to take the person on. They may have only one place and several pupils in which case the unsuccessful pupils may become “squatters” meaning they work there temporarily until they find a position in another chambers as a “tenant.”   Scotland has a slightly different vocabulary with barristers there known as “advocates” and “chambers” become “stables.”  They also have a terrifying equivalent of “pupil supervisor” referred to as a “devil master” or “devil mistress.”  A barrister once told me casually “I ‘devilled’ for judge….” meaning that the judge had been her devil master.

Barristers may choose to take a higher qualification and be admitted as a “Queen’s Counsel”or “QC”.  This title follows their names as in “John Smith QC.”  I suppose it is like choosing to be a heart surgeon.  Except that surgeons will not change their titles based on who is president.  When the Queen dies, every QC in Britain will need to buy new business cards because they will become KCs or King’s Counsel. Barristers wear black or dark grey in court and these clothes are covered with an official black gown resembling graduation robes.  The gown of a QC is made of silk so “silk” is the nickname for a QC as in “she’s a silk.”  A barrister who is not a silk may be referred to as a “junior” but it has nothing to do with age or experience. It merely means the barrister is junior in rank to a “silk”.  When you become a QC you “take silk.”  If  gowns come as a surprise to people visiting the district where the courts are located, wigs,  traditionally the distinguishing feature of both barristers and judges, are even more so.  Life is changing and not all barristers wear wigs and certain British judges never did (such as the Supreme Court) but the wig remains in some ways the symbol of barristers and of the British legal system.

QCs (and judges) have long white wigs of horse hair for ceremonial occasions (called full bottom wigs) but in court barristers wear white short wigs with curls on the sides and a pigtail (a little like some of the founding fathers).  Some barristers find the wigs hopelessly old fashioned and too expensive (they cost several hundred pounds). Others like the anonymity they confer.  I saw this for myself one day when I needed to meet a barrister. He only had an hour break so I had to go to the Central Criminal Court to meet him to save time.  I was waiting in a magnificent marble corridor where barristers in their gowns and wigs bustled past. I nearly called to a dozen people but I could not recognize him although I had sat across from him in meetings for months. So I stood still hoping he would see me.  Someone appeared to notice how lost I looked. I watched as he approached preparing to tell him the name of the barrister I had come to meet. He was 12 inches from my face when he said “it’s me!”  Then I recognized him.  If you are prosecuting dangerous people you might want to be unrecognizeable outside of the courtroom and perhaps a way to detach yourself from the day job. A former chair of the bar was a QC specialising in criminal cases. When I asked him how he felt about wearing a wig and gown he explained that in court he was often accusing people of terrible things.  The wig gave him some emotional distance between his work and his life outside court. It also reminded the person on trial that this was not personal, that the barrister was serving in an official capacity.  As I began watching trials in court I noticed an advantage for women and younger barristers – the wigs obscure physical difference when they are facing an older, male adversary in court.

Old fashioned they may be but the wig and gown are also the dignified symbol of a professional.  Every so often barristers discuss what to do about wigs. Get rid of them altogether? Change which courts require them? I remember a particular year when members of the bar were polled for their views on wigs and I was impressed to discover that they also took surveys of their clients in prisons across the country as well. The results among barristers  were mixed, however the prisoners were over 90% for retaining the wigs.  One of them wrote, “when I go into court, I want a proper barrister, not some bloke in jeans!”

It is a fact of life in Britain that the traditional and the modern culture walk hand in hand and that fact should make it easy to escape cultural complacency but only if you dig deep. Buckingham Palace is easy to see but the fabulous buildings of the Inns of Court where barristers are literally “called to the bar” are tucked away.  Almost as invisible is the fact that London is a major legal capital and derives billions of dollars in income from the existence of a legal system widely seen as fair with high quality judges and members of the legal profession (both barristers and solicitors). There is nothing quaint or old fashioned in their legal skills or in the content of their courts and that makes their particular dress code and vocabulary all the more interesting.   I had been here for many years when my cultural excitement was reawakened during a tour of the Court of Appeals.   I was standing in the vast atrium when I happened to look up. There leaning on the ornate 19th century marble balcony was a young lawyer in his 18th century wig speaking into his 21st century mobile phone.  Such a portrait would have caught anyone’s attention. But it’s important not to stop at the superficial.  If I had, I never would have discovered the intricate rules for dining. That is another story.

For more photos of barristers and judges in their magnificent garb click here. With thanks to Stephen Harvey Smith and his photo blog.

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One thought on “Wigs, Devilmasters, Squatters and Silks: The World of Lawyers in Britain

  1. Thank you for such a clear and useful description of who does what in our legal system, useful for those living in and those visiting our country.

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