A Peep at the Barrister’s Profession, 1883

“Outsiders have no idea what nervous work the conduct of a case is…The path of a lawyer is beset with snares and pitfalls.

The below advice for those contemplating a call to the Irish Bar was published on 17 February 1883 as part of Flags of Ireland’s ‘Peeps at the Profession.’ Times have changed, but quite a few of its observations remain relevant today…

“The first thing a young barrister does is to take unto himself a wig, gown and brief bag. The outfit costs something like seven guineas. He puts himself into the wig and gown, but he has to wait (sometimes a long while) for the solicitors to put something into the brief-bag. Meantime, he stays its stomach with newspapers, books and parcels of sandwiches. It is curious how seldom it strikes anyone, least of all those who see it oftenest, how foolish a custom this is of barristers wearing, and being compelled to wear, wigs and gowns; how utterly incongruous in this matter of fact nineteenth century. Suppose the doctors refused to visit a patient, or feel a pulse, or prescribe a draught, until they had arrayed themselves in funny wigs of curly horsehair and strangely fashioned bedgowns of black bombazine?

By the way, those gowns have a lot of eccentric tags and tassels which are a puzzle to the most inexperienced wearer.  This long flap that falls over the shoulder was erst a sword-sheath in the old times, when the Templars were prompter with their weapons than their tongues; this triangular tag supported a purse, and this an inkhorn. They remain as memorials of their former usefulness.

Let us follow the novice from the underground cellar, where he daily dons the regalia of the profession – the Library.  The Library is sacred to the profession of the bar.  Not even solicitors can pass its portals. Now and again ladies flit like sunbeams through this gloomy temple of law, gazing at the crowd of men in strange costume bent over big books or broad papers with the same kind of timid curiosity that one regards the animals feeding at the zoo.  An entrance fee of three guineas and an annual subscription of two guineas gives the barrister the freedom of the Library, a privilege not lightly to be underrated. 

Apart from its legal advantages, the Library is a wonderful place for social and political anecdote and gossip.  The conversation is generally focused around the three great fires with which the spacious rooms are heated.  A pleasant atmosphere of social equality and kindliness pervades the place. The veriest tyro can appeal in his perplexities to the most eminent leader with the perfect certainty of courteous and kindly assistance.

Some men display in the Library a power of concentrated attention that is little less than miraculously.  Amid the babble of constant conversation, amid the incessant and stentorian shouting of names by the porter who gives voice to the desires of the crowd of eager solicitors at the door, those men work as composedly as in their own silent studies, track an intricate line of argument from authority to authority, or draft a complicated deed in which a slip might mean the forfeiture of an estate for a client.

The first sensation of a young barrister on entering the library is one of blank dismay. He is appalled by the multitude of law books. Ten lives of more than patriarchal length, devoted exclusively to the work, would not suffice to read a tithe of them. Yet in any one of those ten thousand volumes, and in that alone, may be contained the proposition of law of which he is in quest. It is a curious system, this of English law, and I doubt if it Is generally understood. Apart altogether from the long series of statues, confused and contradictory, stretching back to the earliest times, every decision of every judge became and becomes law the moment of its delivery. Those decisions are contained in the ten thousand volumes of reports already mentioned, and each ‘moment times a new one.’  The ideally perfect lawyer should know them all.

 It is probable that there are very few questions on which diametrically opposite decisions may not be discovered. Great case lawyers, as they are called, have their notebooks and memories stocked with conflicting decisions, so that they can expound the law in favour of whichever side they happen to be engaged upon.

It is a very popular delusion that the young aspirant to legal honours is very anxious for his first brief.  He is more afraid of it than anxious for it, and it is not infrequently a white elephant to him when it comes.  Outsiders have no idea what nervous work the conduct of a case is. The simplest matter is as bristling over with law points as the fretful porcupine himself. The path of a lawyer is beset with snares and pitfalls. The discovery of some mouldy old case, the neglect of any one of the ten-thousand-minute precautions may result in defeat and disaster. There is no such thing as certainty in law.

It would be amusing, if it were not provoking, for a barrister to be asked offhand, as he constantly is, by some of the public for his opinion on some complex question of law, just as he would be asked for the solution of a sum in simple arithmetic. I was on one occasion requested by a lady to explain the legal result of a long line of settlements of an estate.  To evade the question, I suggested that perhaps it might be advisable to see the settlements before expressing an opinion. ‘Oh’ replied my fair interrogator, ‘it would be inconvenient to get them just at present, but I can tell you anything of importance that is in time.’  It is worth remembering that the ablest and most erudite judges, after the most careful consideration and elaborate discussion, frequently come to directly opposite conclusions upon any complicated question of law.”

Even if the young novice does succeed in getting a brief and winning his little motion or little case, if he passes successfully through the terrible ordeal of his first address to a court or jury, his fortune is not so immediately and so completely made as novel writers would have us imagine. The attention of the civilized world is not concentrated on his success. He is not besieged by a crowd of anxious clients and eager solicitors. On the contrary, everything goes on much the same as before. If he wishes to reach eminence he must patiently climb. Now and again, by some special success, he may at most leap up two steps at a time on the ladder that reaches to distinction.

The Bar is divided into two great classes. The distinction is more marked in England. But it prevails here too. There is the Equity Bar and the Common Law Bar. By way of a broad popular definition, it may be said that the Equity barristers are the orators, and the Common Law barristers are the talkers. The Equity men are great framers of pleadings and drafters of affidavits. It may be well to explain that the public generally are under a very natural delusion as to the legal meaning of the word pleading.  You hear people say they have heard a barrister pleading very eloquently in court. You cannot hear a pleading. A barrister pleads on paper. The pleading is in the written statement of the case relied on by either party to an action. It shows what is to be fought out between the parties and clears the field for battle. In Equity, the battle is fought on sworn written statement. In Common Law, generally by oral statements on oath in open court, and subject to the test of cross examination. 

The Equity men are distinguished by erudition and acuteness and have a wonderful faculty for marshalling their paper battalions in the most imposing and formidable way. There is not much glory to be had in Equity, but the profit is considerable. Now and again in a great Equity suit in which there are innumerable parties, although there is no real conflict of evidence or of interest, it is amusing to see counsel for each one of the several parties every time the case is called pop up one after another like the notes of a pianoforte, mention for whom they appear , and sit down again.  Each pop means at least two guineas for the barrister and twice as much for the solicitor. Besides, reputations are certainly often very cheaply obtained at the Equity side of the bar. A very eminent judge is said to have described the majority of Equity leaders as ‘pompous fiddlers with affidavits’ and it is pretty certain that some of them acquire their reputation for ‘wisdom, gravity and profound conceit’ by simple, ponderous stupidity, and ‘therefore only are reputed wise for saying nothing.’

The Common Law men, on the other hand, live their lives out more in the fierce light of public opinion. It is theirs to conduct cases; to address juries, and to cross-examine witnesses. s This is the rarest and most important power of all. For one barrister who can cross-examine you will find ten that can speak. It is cross-examination that wins cases. It is cross-examination that drives a truth or falsehood home to the mind of the jury. The speech can at most only clinch the nail after it is driven. It is a wonderful power, truly. As to its practical and paramount importance for elicited truth or exposing falsehood there can be no difference of opinion. Everyone remembers how the lying and libidinous Elders in the Scriptures were put to confusion by the brief cross-examination of the youthful Prophet, and every other day in our law courts we witness cross-examination made the medium of triumphs of truth as signal as the triumph of the chaste Susannah, of exposures of falsehood as sudden and as withering as the exposure of her perjured accusers.

No lie, however skillfully concealed, however elaborately disguised, can escape the search of a skilful cross-examination.  The cross-examining counsel tracks the shifty perjurer with the certainty of a sleuth hound. He does what Hamlet defied the king’s spies to do. He plays upon him. He seems to know all his stops.  He sounds him from his lowest note to the top of his compass. He plucks out the heart of his mystery.

All barristers, to whichever side of the profession they belong, keep their faces fixed steadily towards the bench. Hundreds drop out of the race every year. But those few who are endowed with exceptional perseverance or speed hold on doggedly to the end, safely leap the dangerous fence of the inner bar, and arrive at last at the goal of their ambition. At the foot of the bench, I will leave the profession. It is dangerous to look at or write about a judge.”

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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