Just deserts

My Brief Career: the trials of a young lawyer

Harry Mount <em>Short Books, 208pp, £9.99</em>


In the late 1990s, Harry Mount spent a miserable year as a barrister's pupil in a London chambers. Now a leader-writer on the Daily Telegraph, he has taken a terrible revenge in the form of this short, entertaining and surprisingly jolly memoir. Usually, "pupillage" - the year that apprentices spend shadowing established barristers and learning the tricks of the trade - is not much fun. Pupils face a vertiginous learning curve, (relatively) badly paid menial work and stiff competition from fellow pupils for a long-term slot in a set of chambers. There are also various ceremonial hoops to be jumped through, such as the fixed number of dinners that each pupil must eat at one of the Inns of Court before qualification. To aspiring barristers, the whole process often sounds like a cross between penal servitude and a sadistic Japanese endurance game.

Even by these standards, Mount seems to have had a bad time. In a foreword, he explains that the barristers in his book "are composite characters and essentially the author's inventions, although everything that takes place is based on real events". I don't know quite what that means - but at any rate, Mount's memoir is a shocking catalogue of humiliations and absurdities.

His first pupil master, David Frobisher, is a "total wanker", who seems irritated by his pupil's mere presence and treats him like a serf. When not barking orders - "Fetch my Barbour from the menders", and so on - Frobisher addresses the bare minimum of words in Mount's direction, muttering things like "Lunch" or "I'm going home now". Most of his teaching focuses on such interesting matters as the correct number of buttons on a suit cuff, how much space to leave between his coffee and the rim of the cup, and how to place said coffee on the mat "with a gentle 'plik' noise, never a hearty 'pok'". Mount's fellow pupil is tormented by another pupil master, who loudly announces on the first day that he has "the biggest cock in Gray's Inn". His indignities culminate in being used as a human sunshade to keep the light off his boss's computer screen. If either of these barristers does exist in any recognisable form, he ought to be squirming in his plush Georgian chambers by now.

All in all, Mount makes barristers sound pompous, inhumane and, incidentally, poor value for money (although he does concede that some are "highly intelligent" and, "more importantly", can stay alert while reading insanely boring legal documents). They will no doubt be annoyed by this book, which exaggerates one person's bad experiences and makes wild generalisations from them. Mount complains that the law is boring - he seems mildly scandalised that life as a barrister in no way resembles the juicy legal coverage in the newspapers or courtroom dramas. Lawyers, he grumbles, are concerned with dry principles which "are unlikely to be moving or salacious"; they use tedious technical words like "injunction" and "confidentiality". This is all true. But it seems a little unfair on the law that, as well as regulating behaviour, business and property in England and Wales, it should also amuse Master Mount. And even allowing for exaggeration, his description covers only one recognisable type of old-school chambers: his blanket conclusions are unfair to the professionalism, and the diversity, of much of the modern Bar.

However, this is not the real point of the book, which is to draw an amusing sketch of an archaic and often unsympathetic working atmosphere. And here Mount comes into his own. As he explains, it is not just a matter of wigs, gowns and courtroom etiquette, but also of a deeply hierarchical culture which entails deference to superiors and arrogance to inferiors. He is very good on the unwritten, quasi-masonic rules about becoming deportment; and on strange traditions such as chambers tea, where barristers sit around attempting to make conversation.

Anyone who has spent a little time with barristers - and seen them guffawing over points of law at lunch at the Inn halls, or politicking over judicial appointments while taking a turn in the Temple Gardens - will recognise the justice of his descriptions. I say "a little time", because one of the more striking professional deformations of the barrister is total self-absorption. As Mount puts it, the ones he met

were like crack German spies, sleepers planted in England in their early teens, and told to infiltrate the legal profession. Adept as they were at talking about all things legal, they never dared stray off the topic for fear they would blow their cover.

Mount's descriptions may be cartoonish; but then so, frankly, is the image that the profession projects to the world.

Theo Tait is a failed barrister

This article first appeared in the 26 April 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Appeasement: Should we strike a deal?