I would prefer not to

For those of you who have never read Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, I cannot recommend it more highly. But what I definitely wouldn’t recommend is to take it as much to heart as one of our pupils did recently.

You see, Bartleby is famous for answering every request with “I would prefer not to.” This simple stance of polite but firm defiance in the face of all authority provided such inspiration to one of our poor down-trodden pupils that he decided to give it a go for himself.

So when his pupil master asked him to write an advice, he replied simply, “I would prefer not to.” So, too, when HeadClerk instructed him to do a case in Slough, though this, it must be said, was more understandable. To start with, this was taken by some with surprisingly good humour. Others were more defensive and insisted that chambers set up a sub-committee to discuss the legal implications of this stance and whether they could actually enforce their requests or not.

But when the same response was given to OldSmoothie’s request for a coffee the other day, the refusal was not given such a patient hearing. “Young man, I have been hearing about your somewhat eccentric impertinence and can only conclude that you simply have no desire for a career at the Bar and therefore intend to go out with a bang through some piece of litigation or other. Well let me tell you this. As far as I’m concerned pupils should have no rights at all. They should be there solely to further the slightest whim and general caprice of their overbearing pupilmaster.

However, I realise that my own view isn’t in vogue at present and that many chambers now treat their pupil with kid gloves, particularly ones such as yourself from whom they fear some sort of vexatious action. But let me tell you one thing and hear this clearly. The European Convention of Humam Rights may have entered many parts of our lives. But, as far as I’m concerned, one activity to which it will never, and I repeat, never apply is the making of regular coffees for any member of chambers who so requests.”

Such was the volume and force of this outburst that Bartleby slowly inched towards the kitchen, presumably fearing violence if he were to provoke OldSmoothie further. Then when he reached the door he slipped quietly through it after which he apparently fled. Literally ran out of chambers and up the lane and hasn’t been seen since. I guess the only lesson to take from this is that you can push even the most pompous of barristers so far, but never ever even dream of not making them coffee. Some things, as they say, really are behind the pale.

BabyBarista is a fictional account of a junior barrister written by Tim Kevan whose new novel is Law and Peace. For more information visit and to read past posts visit babybarista.com. Cartoons by Alex Williams, author of 101 Ways to Leave the Law.

September 24, 2013 · Tim Kevan · Comments Closed
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