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Dealing with solicitors

One thing which is an important part of practice at the Bar which students do not really learn much about is the importance of knowing how to deal with solicitors. Sometimes solicitors become friends as well as working colleagues, but it is the professional relationship which is the significant one for these purposes.

Different levels of seniority (both of the barrister and the Solicitor) impact upon the nature of the relationship. However there is one common thread which runs through every such relationship. The principal aim has to be to work harmoniously to get the best out of each member of the team working on behalf of the client. What that involves can vary massively from case to case, but the principle remains the same.

Junior barristers just starting out can sometimes strike entirely the wrong note when being instructed by experienced solicitors. Of course every solicitor wants to have a confident barrister who is unafraid to express their opinion and who will be equally unafraid to make submissions before a hostile tribunal which does not care greatly for the argument being made. Having said that, experienced solicitors do not like being talked down to by newly called barristers. There are few better ways of ruining a potential relationship with a solicitor than by treating him or her as if they were an idiot. You might think that this sort of thing would never happen, but believe me it frequently does. One of the things that often amazes me is what solicitors say about barristers can contradict completely what the barrister is really like. Adopting a persona you think is a professional one for the purpose of impressing solicitors can often radically backfire.

With more junior people working at solicitors offices being overly arrogant with them can just reduce their confidence levels so that they are not able to give full assistance in the way that would otherwise happen. The first rule for the barrister should always be to remember that the client is paying for a team of lawyers, and that team is no more likely to produce its best if there is disharmony than the football team would where the players refused to pass to one another.

Sometimes in the interests of the client you have to say or do things which are adverse to the solicitor (for example where the solicitors have made an error which may breach their duty of care vis-a-vis the client). Of course you must speak out in such circumstances, but equally importantly, you must be absolutely sure of your ground before you do so. One junior barrister once, on a misunderstanding of the facts, casually mentioned in conference to the client that he thought the solicitors had been negligent. He ultimately retracted this, but this was probably the most important firm of instructing solicitors for that particular chambers who had never used him before (and never did again). There was considerable concern that it would never use anyone from those chambers again. Solicitors obviously expect you to comply with your professional obligations, however embarrassing it may be for them, but they expect you to have carefully thought it through first. Saying subsequently that you are wrong just makes a client think either that none of the lawyers know what they are on about, or possibly even worse that what you said in the first place was correct but that in some way you had been got at to change your mind. Thus a moment's carelessness could mean that that client regarded both barristers and solicitors in a dim light.

Of course, barristers can sometimes strike the wrong note wholly inadvertently. Many years ago a solicitor who instructed me held a birthday party in a nightclub. I was invited (as a junior barrister) and also invited was a QC who I knew. This QC was one of the nicest people you could possibly imagine, who would never deliberately give offence to anyone. Many of the guests at the party were people we would not know, from outside the law, and there were also of course other people in the nightclub who were not part of the party, but there were some other solicitors who we did know. One particular woman solicitor, who was very good at her job, always wore glasses and had her hair very severely scraped back for work. She arrived at the party looking very glamorous and virtually unrecognizable as the person you saw at cases. I in fact did not recognize her at all but just had the vague feeling that I knew her from somewhere. Someone greeted her and it became clear who she was. The QC felt that this transformation needed to be commented on, and so decided to say words to the effect of how good she looked and was that just for this party or was she attending another event later on. It came out like this. "Hello Suzy, you look different, in fact you look wonderful. What are you doing later?". No sooner had he said the words that he realised what it sounded like, and she gave him a look that would have curdled milk at ten paces. Whichever way you look at it, since he said this in front of about 10 other solicitors, it must be classed as a great error, but fortunately for him because he was such a lovely man everyone realised it was a mistake and gave him the benefit of the doubt. I thought at the time that if I had made the mistake, rather than him, all hell would have broken loose.

Michael J. Booth QC