The Robing Room Table has been here for nigh on twenty years. Prior to its life as the Robing Room Table it had been the Bar Mess Table where every lunchtime the Barristers would eat together. In fairness people still ate at the Robing Room Table but these days it was all Pret sandwiches rather than fish and chips on a Friday served by a lady who had been here longer than the Robing Room Table but, sadly, was no more.
Nonetheless, in both its lives, the Robing Room Table had borne witness to countless war stories. Tales of great successes in court, of magnificent failure and of great hilarity. Judges had been praised, condemned and impersonated by the occupants of the chairs around the Robing Room Table. It had provided a surface to work upon to countless Silks, High Court Judges of the future and criminal hacks. Across its now heavily scarred table top had been discussed the latest developments in the law, the local lawyers’ gossip and a myriad of other topics. Marriages had been sealed after eyes had met for the first time over its dark wooden surface. It had been present for arguments, both personal and professional, and even one fight. The legs of many an advocate, some now long dead, had nestled beneath the Robing Room Table.
So the Robing Room Table was well placed to know that everything was changing. What had begun with murmurings of discontent now weighed heavy in the heart of each of its users. This very morning the Robing Room Table had taken stock of its occupants and the tally was amongst the saddest the Robing Room Table had ever encountered.
That survey had found one of the Robing Room Table’s ever presents, Mr Senior-Junior, sitting in a chair at its head. Mr Senior-Junior had been Mr Nervous-Pupil in the Robing Room Table’s previous life, taking his place amongst the chatting advocates each lunchtime. That seemed a lifetime ago. How things had changed. Mr Senior-Junior had his laptop open on the Robing Room Table. A laptop! But that was not the change that saddened the heart. It was what Mr Senior-Junior was doing on his laptop that caused such sadness. He was dealing with emails (such things being unheard of when Mr Senior-Junior was Mr Nervous-Pupil and the home computer was still the stuff of Sinclair Spectrums). Again the fact that Mr Senior-Junior had been eventually dragged by his clerk into the technological age was not a cause for lament.
The emails related to the sale of his house. A family home which had seen three children grow and leave for their own lives. But now there was no opportunity for Mr and Mrs Senior-Junior to enjoy the home that held so many memories and to relax in the garden worked upon every weekend and summer evening. This was not downsizing due to the house being too big. Mr Senior-Junior was having to realise his assets. And the house was his most significant asset. Finances had been getting tighter and tighter as the children went through university and now his income had dipped below a level which allowed him to keep their home. They were moving somewhere smaller and cheaper. As he dealt with an email Mr Senior-Junior sighed. Here he was engaged in some of the most serious cases year on year, cases that relied upon his vast experience, cases that kept him awake each night and yet his income dwindled every year. And the Robing Room Table sighed with him.
To the left of Mr Senior-Junior was Mr Well-Liked-Junior. Former pupil alongside his former pupil master. Six years ago Mr Well-Liked-Junior had spent twelve months completing his formal training with Mr Senior-Junior. The two men, different generations of barristers, had always got along very well. Today they were in close proximity but silent. Mr Well-Liked-Junior was lost in his own thoughts. This would be one of the last times he would sit alongside Mr Senior-Junior. No more would the Robing Room Table hear Mr Well-Liked-Junior ask his pupil master for advice about the case he had that day. Mr Well-Liked-Junior had, in the months before, decided that he was giving up criminal work. His chambers also handled a good deal of civil work. Assessing his future and the need to provide a regular income Mr Well-Liked-Junior had told his clerk he wanted to move from crime to do civil. He had been on courses. He had shadowed other members of chambers. With a heavy heart he saw no future in crime but no fulfilment in civil. However, rent needed to be paid. Boyhood dreams took a backseat to reality. The Robing Room Table would miss his affable, good humoured enthusiasm.
Opposite Mr Well-Liked-Junior was Miss Up-and-Coming. Ten years in to being a barrister and always in demand. The Robing Room Table knew from the conversations of her opponents and peers that Miss Up-and-Coming was one of its regulars who would go on to sit at much grander tables. Usually so assured, Miss Up-and-Coming was in a state of internal turmoil today. Listed at court was a mention in a case in which she was the Junior for the main defendant. A large fraud case, many defendants. Her instruction in that case marked yet another milestone in her steady march towards brilliance. Yet it now caused Miss Up-and-Coming consternation. The heavy workload involved in such cases had an inevitable impact on her personal life. And now she was faced with deep cuts to the fees in a case she had accepted over a year ago.
Miss Up-and-Coming imagined what would happen if she went home this afternoon and told the builder working on the extension to her house that she had decided all his work from this point on would be paid at 30% less than the previously expected fee. Miss Up-and-Coming knew exactly what he would do – walk off site. Exactly that choice faced her now. Her consternation came from the struggle between her desire to do “good” work and the compensation that she received for devoting her life to her career. It came from the struggle of her professional duty towards her client and the stark reality that she could not continue to devote the time necessary to such a case under the new, spartan rates. Should she, could she, simply treat the contract for the case as a commercial agreement and walk away? She knew what she had to do. She knew what her bank manager would have her do. It weighed heavy on her conscience but there came a time when Miss Up-and-Coming had to say “no more”.
At the corner of the Robing Room Table Mr Experienced-HCA was reading the newspaper. At least he was looking at the newspaper. The words were not being processed by his brain. His mind was filled with the office meeting last night. The meeting at which the senior managing partner had told them that the entire staff faced the threat of redundancy in order to make the firm more efficient. Mr Experienced-HCA was at the very sharp end of the firm’s business and he knew full well they were already operating at the bare minimum of staff and resources. Furthermore the advocates had all been spoken to separately to be told that one of them would definitely be going unless they all accepted a pay cut of a third. A third?!?
So as the Robing Room Table held his paper for him he contemplated what his future would hold. The increasing demands on his time. The constant workload of case after case. Mr Experienced-HCA felt that this was a breaking point. But what would break? Him? His firm? The whole system? The words of the newspaper swam before his eyes.
The final figure readying herself for court was Miss Respected-Prosecutor. Known for her attention to detail allied with great intelligence and judgment Miss Respected-Prosecutor had been quickly earmarked by the CPS as one of their counsel of choice. Soon her defence instructions diminished as she was instructed in big drug conspiracy after big conspiracy by the Crown. Miss Respected-Prosecutor had always appreciated that the defence would often be paid a better rate than her. It was obvious to the Robing Room Table where her talents lay, talents for which the whole of society owed a cheer. Despite her talent, despite the clamour for her services, cut after cut had impacted hard upon Miss Respected-Prosecutor. Following a delay in payment, a constant wrangle over a fee for a substantial case, her bank account contained not a penny. She had nothing left in her overdraft limit. The only way Miss Respected-Prosecutor had been able to come to court this morning was by walking round to her father’s house and borrowing the money for the petrol and parking. What of tomorrow? And the day after?
Miss Respected-Prosecutor had to stand and hurry to the toilets. She could not let the Robing Room Table see her cry.
As the day wore on the occupants of the chairs around the Robing Room Table came and went. In the evening, after the cleaners had finished their work, the Robing Room Table was left empty and in darkness. The characters and talented professionals that had been the constant companion of the Robing Room Table for all those years were gone. How many of them will return?