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Lifetime Achievement Award: Richard Barr

SJ contributor Richard Barr talks to John van der Luit-Drummond about his time writing for the world's longest running legal journal ahead of the Solicitors Journal Awards: Recognising brilliance in a changing legal world

25 May 2016

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Even after 25 years and three-quarters of a million words, Richard Barr's long-running narrative diary, pouring out the stresses and strains of everyday practice in its own unique way, remains as popular as ever with Solicitors Journal's readers. In his 'Tales from Practice' column, Richard, the everyman solicitor, still regales practitioners with his latest gripes and observations of the legal world. As SJ turns 160 years old, I asked Richard to look back at his time with the world's longest-running legal publication and explain where it all began.

The original inspiration for SJ's longest-serving columnist came from the writings of James Heriot and his semi-autobiographical stories about animals and their owners, beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. 'In the 1980s, when my children were young, I had been reading the Heriot books, and wondered if there was scope for doing the same for solicitors as he did for vets,' explains Richard. And so an idea was born that has stood the test of time.

In hindsight, the journey from occasional scribe to SJ stalwart should not have been a surprise for Richard. Writing and the law is a family affair in the Barr clan. In addition to practising as a barrister, Richard's great grandfather, Marcus Bourne Huish, was editor of The Art Journal from 1881 to 1892. David, Richard's late father, was another lawyer and prolific author, publishing five books and more than 900 articles, several dozen of which were in SJ. 'Writing seems to be in our blood,' observes Richard. 'My brother, William - also a solicitor - has written articles for SJ. And my daughter, Sophie, yet another solicitor, wrote regularly for Young Lawyer.'

In May 1966, a 19-year-old Richard saw his first paid article published in the Eastern Daily Press for a whopping £15. Regular articles in the local paper continued for many years, along with an occasional piece for the Law Society Gazette, 'Until they had a change of editor and stopped using my pieces,' Richard adds as an aside. 'In the late 1980s I wrote a number of articles for Law Magazine, edited by Marcel Berlins, until it closed. By that time I had written a small number of pieces for SJ - including an article I wrote about the office being flooded in 1978 - but not on a regular basis. It all took off when Marcel recommended me to Marie Staunton, who had recently been appointed editor of SJ.'

The year was 1991 and Richard and SJ never looked back as a marriage between writer and magazine formed. Yet writing a monthly column, in addition to practising as a clinical negligence solicitor, is no mean feat. Just where does Richard find his inspiration each month? 'Everyone and everything,' he replies. 'I try to include something faintly relevant to the legal profession in my articles, but I cannot claim that they are instructive in any way,' he laughs. 'Things that seemed humdrum in the 80s now seem more interesting. That got me into writing regularly and, eventually, it came naturally.'

As any writer will attest, putting pen to paper is never an easy process, even for someone like Richard, who is able to draw on his surroundings and experiences to fill column inches month after month, year after year. 'I do get that feeling of panic staring at a blank page, knowing that I have to deliver or have Laura Clenshaw [SJ's managing editor] breathing down my neck,' he says with a smile.

When Richard qualified in November 1971, following a successful articled clerkship at Bircham & Co, the solicitor profession was, if not a job for life, at least a reasonably secure career choice. Much has changed in the decades since, and Richard - who had partnership stints at Dawbarn Barr & Knowles and Hodge Jones & Allen, Alexander Harris, and now has a consultant role at Scott-Moncrieff & Associates - has documented every twist and turn, high and low, in his column.

'High-street lawyers are now poorer, more stressed, and far less happy than a quarter of a century ago,' he observes. 'There were problems then and my articles reflected that, but recent and sustained government attacks on the activities of small firms - making access to justice more difficult, closing courts, hiking court fees, savaging criminal legal aid - along with hugely increased regulation, have all made for an unhappy mix.'

In addition to skewering the establishment with a witty, cutting turn of phrase, Richard has used his column to highlight how advancements in technology have changed the nature of legal practice: 'In one of my early articles, I talked with some excitement about our first fax machine. Later pieces discussed computers. In 1996, I wrote a piece ('Walk into my parlour'), which patiently explained what the World Wide Web was. At that time few firms had computers. All that has changed and has to some extent made things easier, but it is a mixed blessing.'

Since his first published piece, Richard has witnessed SJ evolve and reinvent itself, reflecting changes to both the publishing and legal worlds. 'It was always regarded as the antidote to the Law Society and in the early days gave a lot of support to the British Legal Association, which was set up to challenge the society,' he explains. 'At the time it was regarded as the source of information for practitioners and we had weekly meetings to consider updates in the law - using SJ as the source. The early issues gave the appearance of being rather staid, with worthy but dull articles. Over time, and particularly after Marie took over, it began to brighten up and has continued to do so ever since. It is well respected and deserves to be in every office.'

While over half a dozen editors have come and gone since his first SJ article, one relationship has endured over the last 25 years: a partnership between writer and illustrator that established the signature look of Richard's column. In the late 80s and early 90s, David Haldane was one of a number of cartoonists whose satirical illustrations brought authors' words to life on the pages of SJ. It was not until 1994, however, that Richard's proses were exclusively illustrated by Haldane.

'We have a strange relationship,' admits Ricard. 'We never speak and almost never exchange emails. He has created this character for me and keeps to that style in his cartoons. One of the pleasures of seeing my pieces in print is finding out what treatment David has given it. I met him only once.'

Asked about his recollection of that particular meeting, David elaborates: 'I was drawing cartoons of Richard for about three years before we actually met face to face. After a couple of beers in a local tavern, he and I decided that my Richard Barr cartoon character would never age - he would always remain about 35-years-old with an impressive quiff. While Richard still writes, I hope to be still drawing cartoons for his articles,' he adds. 'Long may his inspiration continue.'

And therein sits the elephant in the room. Having informed, enlightened, and titillated readers for the better part of three decades, tonight we rightly celebrate Richard Barr's outstanding contribution to SJ with our first Lifetime Achievement award. But with hundreds of articles now under his belt, just how much longer will Richard's musings, rants, worries, and observations grace the pages of the industry's leading publication?

'Is that a question or a threat?' he asks, laughing. 'The question should really be put the other way round: how much longer can you put up with all this rubbish from me? Every year I wonder if you will want me to carry on. Then Laura - or one of her predecessors - show themselves to be a glutton for punishment and asks me to carry on. I am nowhere near retiring - can't afford to and besides I need to be kept off the streets - so I guess I will keep writing until someone tells me to stop.'

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