The not so secret barrister: Dave Fendem’s Dirty Briefs
Chaynee Hodgetts reviews the anonymous criminal defence barrister’s new book
“We are all quacks and charlatans. We essentially dress up in Mummy’s clothes, don a stilted manner of speech, throw in a bit of Latin here and there, and wing it. 99 per cent of the time, this cavalier approach works out fine. But not one of us truly knows what the bloody hell we are doing.”
This right hook of a line led to Dirty Briefs, the latest in a litany of criminal Bar tales, coming to be reviewed here in the Solicitors Journal. As a (to date, almost exclusively) criminal defence barrister, its honesty resonated like little else I’d ever read. The Bar, veiled in the shadow of centuries of rites, rituals and rules (not least, more recently, Core Duty 5, “not [to] behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in you or in the profession”) remains an opaque, and for many, obscure, occupation. This book peels off the lid – and throws it away.
“I thought it was a trumpet and played a tune on it…”
Like The Secret Barrister, its author remains anonymous – adopting ‘Dave Fendem’ as his nôm de plume – presumably a pun on “defend ‘em.” While Arthur Miller once said: “Certainly the most diverse, if minor, pastime of literary life is the game of Find the Author,” here, there is perhaps no need. Prima facie, Fendem’s honesty strikes such a sharp blow that the writer could, in some parts, be any one of us, such is the resonance of the underpinning narrative of a life of crime.
This appears to be his ultimate aim, as Fendem adds: “For those who think that all barristers are high fliers blessed with fabulous incomes and has sophisticated lives, this book will decisively re-inform. Being a criminal barrister is one of the toughest, most challenging and correspondingly underpaid jobs that there is.” However, as Miller also once observed: “Don't be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.”
For those in the job as practitioners of any kind, this is a raucous read – a riot running through range of ‘routine’ things we have regard to every day. NSFW by most people’s standards, but perhaps just another day at the office for us? While definitely not suitable fodder for the Year Six Careers Fair, it would also serve as good preparatory reading for law students contemplating whether a life of crime might be for them…
Reflecting on his own progression, Fendem rues: “I have been a lawyer working in the field of crime for 20 years. From my route as a local lad from the sticks, I fought all the way to the bottom to become a criminal barrister and, in so doing, faced challenges that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. The flaws in human nature and the messes in which people find themselves never ceased to amaze me – not least those of the lawyers themselves.” The alacrity of this acknowledgement, continued as a theme threaded through the text, is something all applicants to the job should hear.
One thing is for definite – while there is no ‘average’ barrister, if there were one, Fendem, to his credit, isn’t it. While the content of the subject matter covered is bracingly blunt, the way in which it is put (leaving the tales of ‘romantic’ reminiscence to the side) possesses poise and panache – and, above all else, even a degree of empathy for the lay client (a trait rarer than it ought to be).
“Come down and see me… you might just have found your saviour…”
Perhaps one of the most remarkably refreshing things about Fendem’s frankness is his explicit exploration of the eccentricities exacerbated by the job – and the mental health matters frequently encountered, but seldom set out with such ease – especially by men in the profession. Belying the bravado peppering the pages, a visceral vulnerability unfolds, in a way not explored so openly anywhere else in the genre – and perhaps representative of the text’s unique juxtapositions.
This book will not be everybody’s cup of tea – and at times, subversively sails remarkably close to the wind in its candour and confessional tone, shedding the author’s innermost thoughts in the way most counsel do our gowns after a long day on our feet. But for those with an appropriate acquired taste, or personal experience of the pointy end of the criminal Bar, it’s real, raw and resonant in a way no other book to date has been – so perhaps readers should make their minds up for themselves…
Ms Chaynee Hodgetts FRSA our features and opinion editor and barrister with Libertas Chambers: libertaschambers.com/our-people/chaynee-hodgetts, was reviewing “Dirty Briefs” by Dave Fendem, published by Mardle Books, and out now: davefendem.co.uk