Better Call Saul

Just before Christmas, the Court of Appeal dismissed Mr Robert Ekaireb’s appeal against conviction for the murder of his pregnant wife. The appeal was founded on the alleged incompetence of Mr Ekaireb’s brief – Michael Wolkind QC.

Unsurprisingly, the appeal failed. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, found that Mr Wolkind should go to bed earlier, concentrate harder, and not play on his blackberry whilst the court was sitting, but that this did not make the conviction unsafe.

What intrigued us, was this paragraph:

Our attention was drawn to Mr Wolkind’s personal website. We were surprised at its content and tone. However, whether it is within the proper bounds of professional conduct for a member of the bar, particularly one who has had since 1999 the status of being one of Her Majesty’s Counsel, is a matter which we direct be referred to the Bar Standards Board for their consideration.

To put this in context. Lawyers were not allowed to advertise at all.  Publicity was considered inimical to the dignity of the calling.  One merely waited for the footfall on the threshold, or the brief with the pink ribbon to be delivered.

Firms of solicitors are now more comfortable with advertising than barristers’ chambers. City solicitors now employ legions of marketing minions. Barristers, however, have a less developed structure and the vulgar business of self-promotion is left to the individual practitioner or the clerks.  Some barristers have embraced the challenge with more gusto.

Barristers with their own personal websites was a new one on us. But why not?  Since 2004, barristers can be approached by members of the public directly.  They do not have to be chaperoned by costly solicitor intermediaries.

Joanna Public has not felt entirely comfortable with going to talk to their Holinesses direct. Other professions, for example accountants and surveyors don’t shy away from chatting with counsel.  After all, that means that clients’ fees can be cut two ways instead of three.

So let’s say you’re in the unfortunate position of Mr Ekaireb, what do you do? After you’ve been arrested, the duty solicitor comes and prises you out of the nick.  The duty solicitor scheme is run by local firms, who use it as a way of picking up work.  Each firm will have its own stable of counsel whom they instruct and you’ll get one of those.

Mr Ekaireb’s solicitor had already chosen junior and leading counsel for him. However, Mr Ekaireb, doing a spot of internet browsing to while away his curfew came upon Mr Wolkind’s website: http://www.topcriminalqc.co.uk/.  So impressed was he with Mr Wolkind’s claims, that he hired him on the spot.

We were intrigued by this new genre of legal self-aggrandisement. Was it widespread?   We set ourselves a little challenge.

Over the Christmas period, getting rather vexed by your Significant Other, you hit them over the head with the empty bottle of Prosecco. Perhaps more than once.  What crime has been committed?  (as criminal law questions have it), but more pertinently – what star internet QC are you going to call?  Was there a goodly choice out there?We typed  “criminal qc” into google and found only these:

http://www.topcriminalqc.co.uk/

http://www.bestcrimebarrister.co.uk/

http://www.bestcriminaldefencebarrister.co.uk/

http://www.criminalqc.com/

http://jeremydeinqc.com/

I’m loving the rank immodesty of some of the website names. Let’s be charitable, though and assume these are merely to attract the fickle attentions of the search engine.

Such charity might be misplaced, when you click upon Mr Wolkind’s link. He is no shrinking violet.  Next to a picture of himself if the strapline “UK’s top Barrister”.  It gets worse…

  “There are great legal minds, even greater legal minds, and then there is Michael Wolkind QC, a man who has no fear when holding your future in his hands”

says the first testimonial on the home page, and then a bit further down this little gem:

 “Michael’s first ever case as Leading Counsel defending in a murder was a front-page dismemberment at the Old Bailey, back in 1985. Nicholas Boyce had killed his wife, Christabel, and chopped and cooked her remains before disposing of her head in the River Thames at Hungerford Bridge. He was acquitted of murder after a jury retirement of less than an hour”.

Poor Christabel.

Then again you can click on video footage of Mr Wolkind on Sky News doing an impressive Barber of Seville type rap on the law of self-defence.  The front page ends with a personal invitation to you:

 If you are facing trial, or if you wish to appeal a conviction or appeal a sentence, and would like to discuss the case with the UK’s top Criminal Barrister and QC, please feel free to contact me for a preliminary conversation.

 Disappointingly, the click through sends an email to Mr Wolkind’s clerks, rather than a chinwag with the real McCoy. For Mr Wolkind has not turned his back on the traditional, chambers system.  He is one of many other silks at 25 Bedford Row.  Reassuringly, however, they are the best Criminal Defence set ever.  We know this because they tell us.  Plus they’ve won awards for it.

Wolkind’s site is very visceral and populist. I wanted to believe in his greatness, but after seeing his performance on Sky News, I wondered whether the patter mightn’t get on the jury’s nerves. Not to mention the judge’s.  Lord Thomas clearly wasn’t impressed. That being said, I’m not in the position of our putative champagne slaughterer.  Perhaps the hagiographic tone appeals to the desperate.

How about www.bestcriminaldefencebarrister.co.uk/? This got us to:

Howard Godfrey QC – one of the UK’s – Best Criminal Barristers

A “serious face” masthead shot.  We liked the more modest approach. Not the best, but primus inter pares. We liked he’d been at it for forty years.  Probably had learnt a trick or two.  His “about” page, mitigates the home page’s serious face.  Here Howard is shown looking slightly more relaxed, without compromising the gravitas.  He sports a pretty pink sweater and is an all-round good egg. He lives in Berkshire with his wife and dog, so that’s a plus point.  He goes on:

 When not working he relaxes by playing with his grandchildren, messing about in a boat on the River Thames, and eating and drinking well. Howard also loves travel, and is a keen photographer. As a former cricketer, he is a big cricket fan, and is a member of the MCC.  Other passions include theatre, film, and art.

Would he be too posh though? Or too old to appeal to a young jury? What if he drowned during my trial, or drank rather too well the day before the Defence’s closing speech? At least he wouldn’t be fiddling with his blackberry during cross examination.  He didn’t look like a blackberry man.

I clicked on one of his videos, of which there are four. I found his inability to look at me whilst he spoke rather alienating.  “Look at me!”  I wanted to say.  “I’m the one who needs your magic”.

Still, he felt right, and sounded right. When he spoke of the importance of maintaining the Defendant’s dignity during the criminal justice process, I saw his point.  I’d probably be feeling a bit short on that myself  if I’d just hit Them Inside with a bottle of bubbly.

Not that Mr Godfrey seemed keen on simple domestics. Indeed he gave us a lengthy exegesis on gang trials and cut throat defences.  Would he get bored if there were only two parties and one of them the silent witness? Would it be his eager junior doing the donkey work, with Mr Godfrey there to lend his hauteur?

Mr Godfrey practices out of 2 Bedford Row.  Another 2 Bedford Row inmate is http://www.bestcriminaldefencebarrister.co.uk/I liked Quentin Hunt’s modesty.  No masthead shot for him, instead panoramic views of the City of London with the Old Bailey tucked in.   A white collar crime man, the site said.  Trust me for your complex VAT fraud, confide your devilish Ponzi scheme into my willing hands.

The video though is disappointing. It’s shot at tricksy angles and starts with huge mouthfuls of platitudes.  Quentin warms up hugely when he talks about paperwork and detail.  He seems like a nice bloke, too. A good thing when it’s you and him for months and months and months in an interminable white collar crime trial.  Not an emotive jury man then, but good with judges I should think.  Perhaps not the brief for the Santa slayer then, but one to remember when HMRC come knocking.

Next up was http://www.criminalqc.com/. Click, and the face of Sir Ivan Lawrence QC appears.  He who was MP for somewhere up North, for twenty years.  No offence to Sir Ivan, but it’s a terrible website! Did the clerks make you do it?  Or did you get the web name for Christmas and didn’t like to be rude by leaving it hanging vacant in the ether?  Nice and smiley and good library, Sir Ivan, but not for me.

At least you know who’re you are getting with Jeremy Dein QC. He is joint head of Chambers at Wolkind’s set and is not afraid to say so.  One minor quibble: I would question the judgment of having quite so many pictures of Jeremy.  If ever there was one, his is a head born to wear a wig.  However he does look quite the ticket in one.

His video is the best, undoubtedly. He speaks plainly and directly to camera and I loved the embarrassed little smile at the beginning of his spiel, clearly aimed at the person behind the camera.  “Do I have to do this?” the smile is saying.

I thought he might be the ideal counsel for our mince pie murderer.  He seems trustworthy above all. Solid.  Not too posh, not too glib.  In addition he writes stuff, speaks at conferences, sits as a Recorder at the Bailey.  Good on his feet, fixing the jury with his reassuring headmasterly air. A a safe pair of hands, a team player  –  a chambers man, not a lone gun out on a limb. Good Westlaw profile too.

So who you gonna call? Well on the basis of these brief researches, Mr Dein, is the one for me, sir. But it would rather depend on whether I trusted my solicitor more than myself to choose my brief.  What other talents could there be out there, too shy to come and talk to me in my drawing room?

And whether, of course, Mr Dein would want to take on the miseltoe mangler, and whether I could afford him.

 

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