Like many who work in the legal business, I very much welcomed last week’s return of the BBC TV series Silk.

Unfortunately for me I wasn’t able to watch it “live” last Tuesday, as I was travelling, but I was able to observe the commentary on Twitter.  As I did so, I found myself somewhat disappointed to read of some of the apparently glaring failings of this new production.  All manner of procedural details and even one or two fundamentals were apparently amiss.  I could hardly bear to watch as, one by one, the legal tweets chipped away at the high esteem in which I held Silk.

I could barely bring myself, a few days later, to actually watch the episode on I-Player.  But I am glad I did.  Yes, of course there were plenty of factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies.  Plenty of drama and enjoyment too, as you would expect.  But what really did grab me was one particular scene which may have appeared innocuous but in fact was an excellent depiction of one of the key roles of the barristers’ clerk and one which I suspect may have been lost on anyone who has not held this position.  Certainly it didn’t seem to be picked up by anyone tweeting on the #silk hashtag.

It was a short scene but, credit where it is due, to my mind it merits attention as a brilliant illustration of the role of psychologist that comes as part of the unofficial job description for any clerk.  Displaying an instinctive sensitivity to Reader’s post-silk rejection disappointment, Billy announces “your caseload just doubled” while handing him several briefs returned from Martha Costello QC.  But before Reader had time to stop, think and feel slightly patronised by what was effectively a display of pity, Billy passed over another brief, this time not a return but a direct instruction, to the words “and here’s one of your own, sir”.  A classic distraction tactic, well known to any parent with young children, as they watch them toddle off delighted with a tennis ball, forgetting that it could have been the iPad …

To my mind, this was a masterful – and typical – display of ego management, the type of which forms an essential part of getting the best out of the sort of independent, driven but inherently insecure characters that generally make up the Bar.  In order to maintain an effective barrister-clerk relationship, this sort of sensitivity is needed constantly to maintain the precarious balance between demonstrating to the barrister how much they rely on the clerk, while not permitting this to cloud their belief that it is principally their own brilliance that drives their success.  In my view, this belief plays a large part in giving the Bar with its unique potency, so it is important that it is guarded with such skill when it could so easily be dismissed as pointless self-indulgence.

It is great to observe this sort of nuance being depicted – whether intentionally or not – to the far-reaching audience of Silk.  I am sure there will be plenty more to learn throughout the series.  I will be watching you, Billy …


5 thoughts on “Psilkology

  1. A very nice point, Jeremy. It amazes me how much of this goes on in that a highly-motivated, intelligent group of people, as most barristers are, live within a cloud of insecurity and need external approval. It doesn’t seem to disappear with time or success. I almost think the Bar displays more of this behaviour than most other groups.

    • Thanks John. I won’t pretend to know all the answers, but I suspect it is a combination of the process of becoming a barrister and the sole practitioner status that tends to amplify the insecurities that exist to some degree in us all. Who knows how much ‘psilkological’ help I might need if no-one commented on or re-tweeted this post !

  2. Reading through your article also reminded me how essentially similar the role of barristers clerk is to that of actors agent, it’s very much a kindred spirit role. I wonder if Neil channels any agents he knows through Billy.

    • To what extent are “agents” (inc barristers’ clerks) the same? They all deal with individuals who work in insecure environments–courts, theatre, literature, film–that don’t guarantee steady work but remain unpredictable. I’m struck by what happened in Hollywood over the last 10 to 20 years as a comparison. Formerly the studios were king, had the actors on contract and so churned out movie after movie. Gradually as actors detached themselves from the studios and became self-sustaining units, the role of the agent/manager grew stronger. So much so that the agent became the controlling, dominant force in Hollywood. Agents would package a range of actors for film projects which then the studio would buy. (I don’t think barristers’ clerks have reached this stage yet….) It also reminds me of the role of sports’ agents who became too involved in the transfer game to the extent that they promoted transfers for their rewards. Finally, there is one “super” literary agent who tried to uncouple his authors from publishers to have their books distributed/published direct by Amazon! This gives new meaning to “principal-agent” theory.

  3. Pingback: UK Blawg Review #10 – Part 4 « Charon QC

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