The barrister custom of refusing to shake hands is still a thing

It can make social interactions rather awkward

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Members of the bar continue to avoid shaking hands with people in accordance with an ancient tradition that those seeking to enter the profession are often unaware of.

According to one widely accepted explanation, the custom dates back to sword-bearing times, when a handshake was a way for people to show each other they weren’t armed. Being among the highest order of gentlemen, there was no need for barristers to bother with the procedure.

The topic arose on Twitter this morning after Blackstone Chambers barrister Emma Dixon tweeted that she ‘ALWAYS ALWAYS’ shakes hands, citing in support a passage from Helena Kennedy’s 1992 book Eve was Framed, which slams the “silly refusal to shake hands” tradition.

So we put the question out more widely to other barristers, and interestingly the consensus was that avoiding a handshake was still the done thing. Pump Court’s Matthew Scott told us:

I don’t shake hands in court setting. Have occasionally had awkward moments in social settings.

Others who adhere to the tradition include well-known blogger ‘The Secret Barrister’, who said:

I don’t usually shake hands with other barristers, but would never refuse one if proffered. Although will occasionally rely on the custom to dodge handshakes with clients alien to hygiene.

‘Jamie’, a barrister at Nine St John Street in Manchester, seconded that view, explaining, “I don’t refuse but never offer my hand. And, like my wig, it is a tradition I understand and think has merit.”

Liverpool criminal barrister Douglas Lloyd described himself as also a member of the “’don’t offer but don’t refuse’ camp”, as did Leeds-based silk Simon Myerson QC.

But not everyone was of this opinion, with a host of other barristers backing the handshake. Employment law specialist Sean Jones QC said he would “proffer to anyone who looks like their heads won’t explode”, while criminal barrister Felicity Gerry QC said she has “been known to kiss hello”. Devereux’s Jo Maugham QC added:

If they don’t want to shake hands with me, I certainly don’t want to with them.

With such mixed messages prevailing, there are obvious risks.

For anyone in doubt, maybe just better to nod.

45 Comments

AB

I have always thought the rule to be that you don’t shake other barristers hands. Well, that’s how I have interpreted it. I always shake hands with clients and solicitors. I don’t think it’s a great look however, to be seen by a client shaking hands with opposing counsel.

(13)(0)
Anonymous

This LC article confirms what we’ve always known: shit, pretentious barristers don’t shake hands. All others do

(4)(0)
Not Amused

I’ve always hated it and thus ignored the rule.

I suppose I don’t shake hands in court or when robed – but it isn’t a jolly and convivial atmosphere. I loathe the growing trend at mediation and arbitration of everyone shaking hands with everyone else (because it gets silly with multiple directors and sols and senior and junior counsel etc.). There are solicitor clients I will do the standard London cheek kiss with – but there are solicitor clients who are genuine life long friends. That is one of the major benefits of the ‘two clients’ system.

My type of lay client would be disturbed if I refused a handshake and no one I know would even try refusing.

It’s such a silly rule (and although the Bar is prone to silly rules) that I expect it to be a Victorian fiction like kilts or fish knives. That was such an odd and controlling society. My own libertarian views don’t really conform with that sort of nonsense. People also ignore far too often just how business minded the supposed ‘old traditions’ are. A lot of them are about establishing and maintaining brand.

But this is just me rambling. What do young people need to know? Well in the commercial areas of the Bar I would say everyone shakes hands. If a barrister chooses to make a cruel example of a young person who offers them their hand then it is the *barrister* who is at fault, not the (no doubt highly embarrassed) young person.

That is because kindness and manners trump any silly rule.

(28)(6)
Anonymous

But Not Amused, you’re not a barrister, so did you just make all this up? I refuse to believe that a real barrister spends his/her (suspect his) days on a student website, coming out with shite like ‘poor-born kids’ and other guff.

(0)(2)
Anonymous

Well, if one wants to live by the ancient traditions, then perhaps he should go to the Old Bailey and beg solicitors for work, rather than sit on their asses waiting for work to come.

(3)(4)
Horace Rumpole

No barrister I have every come across would refuse to shake the hand of a non-advocate.

I don’t shake hands with members of the bar unless offered, when I do.

As a curmudgeonly old reactionary I like the supposed principle behind not shaking in that shaking hands derives from demonstrating one does not have a sword in ones hand and, as learned friends together, with another advocate there is no need to do so as they would never dream of holding a sword against another advocate.

(14)(3)
Anonymous

Never hold a sword against another advocate???

How about a shotgun??

(3)(1)
Anonymous

no one at the Bar cares…… do whatever you feel is right

(5)(0)
Eolderman

I’m perfectly happy to shake a proffered hand, but was trained in pupillage not to shake hands, and I’m afraid old habits die hard, so I don’t generally seem to offer one at Court. Nobody ever claimed it was anything to do with vestigial sword etiquette: it was just put as a form of transparency at Court, for the client’s benefit; a demonstration that I would be doing battle on his/her behalf without fear or favour, unaffected by any personal relationship. Of course, it didn’t stand up to scrutiny, really, and the custom has certainly changed, but it always felt like there was at least a hint of logic to it, and it wasn’t just a pointless/pompous tradition. Sorry, Helena.

(12)(0)
Anonymous

I’m a barrister and think that anyone who doesn’t shake hands is a prize pillock.

Try as you might, you can’t wind the clock back 50 years. In 2016, clients and most lawyers will think you incredibly odd if you keep your hands by your side – it isn’t how business is done.

And if offering a hand to one of these barristers who seem to have a rod stuck up their backside unsettles or confuses them, even better.

(6)(1)
Just Anonymous

Some traditions are worth keeping.

Some are not.

This is the latter.

(11)(3)
Boh Dear

I won’t offer with other barristers but shake if offered. I do think there can be something to be said about transparency. It doesn’t make it look like we all know each other… which we all do anyway…

I know a criminal barrister who is regularly instructed on sex cases. He always makes sure to have a weighty lever arch under his right arm so he doesn’t have to shake hands.

The concept of not shaking a client’s hand (because I’m barrister not because they’re lacking hygiene) is alien to me though.

(5)(0)
Fivefingershuffle

The tradition was always that barristers did not shake hands with other barristers – not that they didn’t shake hands with solicitors or clients. The idea was to avoid any impression that there was some sort of secret organisation or signal between two barristers.

The reality was that it made barristers look like a bunch of self-important tosspots with their own silly unwritten rules. Plus ca change…

(7)(0)
Misanthrope

I used to want to be a barrister. Stuffy and outdated. So glad I opted for the other route.

(1)(11)
Anonymous

I fist bump my opponents in court and high 5 my clients when I win a case…

(16)(0)
Penny

There is a very good reason for these things. Don’t do it at court where it isn’t appropriate or necessary – otherwise, always. Its nothing to do with being snooty.

(3)(3)
Anonymous

There is no good reason.

There is good reason for e.g. not mooning the judge.

But there is no good reason for declining to shake the hand of an opponent.

(1)(4)
Anonymous

The ‘rule’ is not to shake other barristers’ hands. Shaking anyone else’s hand is fine. I don’t go around trying to shake hands with my learned friends but wouldn’t leave someone hanging.

(5)(0)
Anonymous

There is the apocryphal story of the female pupil who said, when a male barrister proferred his hand, that barristers don’t shake hands, to which he said, “Well, I suppose that a sh*g will be out of the question.”

(10)(2)
Gus the Snedger

It’s a practical thing given that, by tradition, barristers don’t wash their wig or robes, meaning that the more senior the counsel, the smellier the bugger is!

As such, not having to shake hands means it’s easier to keep one’s distance for the sake of one ‘s delicate hooter.

I’ve sniffed out some real pongers down the Bailey in my time. Extra-mature Stinking Bishop doesn’t quite cover it!

Much prefer sixth-formers’ navy bloomers myself, much more fragrant…

(1)(3)
Gus the Snedger

I was once rusticated for being found within the grounds of Cheltenham Ladies’ College after dark with a basket of dirty bloomers from the bedwetters’ dorm.

The Crown dropped the theft charges at court as I promptly ate the evidence when I was apprehended!

My barrister didn’t shake my hand when proffered. Outrage!

(2)(1)
Cheltenham Lady (B-dorm, Upper VIth)

Guth! You nathty nathty boy!

I thought you were going to be my boyfwiend!

You jutht wanted me for my thleep-dampened knickerth!

(1)(0)
Dublin BL

They have it here in Ireland too. Ridiculous.

I remember at a dining in Gray’s Inn I was introduced to a bencher. I put my hand out. He looked at it and then turned his nose up at me.

I’m all for tradition when it is relevant. Here it is not. I think most rational people, barristers or otherwise, will agree.

(5)(0)
Anonymous

If a barrister rejects your offering of a handshake then dab and keep it moving.

(4)(0)
Frank

We are not pals. So, no, I’m not into shaking your hand. Especially not in front of my client.

(4)(3)
Humbug

What is this nonsense about barristers not shaking hands with other barristers to avoid clients thinking that they are in some cosy club? Have any of you sat in Crown court and watched opposing counsel banter, chortle and do their level best to appears as best mates? They may not do it when the client is in the dock, but they show no restraint in front of the client’s family when the client is in the cells. A civil handshake would worry them not one jot.

(3)(2)
Anonymous

This is just horseshit.

People don’t shake hands in court because it just seems like dodgy dealing. But outside court barristers shake hands all the time.

(3)(1)
Anonimoose

I’m not a barrister, but I’ve done mini-pupillage, jury service, observed court proceedings as an ordinary member of the public and also in a couple of more ‘personal’ cases. I have not yet seen opposing counsel shake hands, although of course I imagine it must happen outside of court.

It’s not a football match, after all. They’re not up there for larks.

(0)(1)
Barrister in his 40s

Members of Lincoln’s Inn have a dispensation from standing for the loyal toast. It stems back (I believe) to a dinner for Queen Elizabeth (the first, obviously) when members of the Inn were too drunk to stand, so she granted ongoing dispensation.

In my 20s, my wife (also Lincoln’s) and I took great pleasure remaining seated at weddings etc during toasts to the Queen. Then explaining to anyone interested (ie nobody) why we didn’t stand. Yes, I know. We were utter tossers.

Nowadays, of course, nobody toasts the Queen. So the issue doesn’t arrive.

(6)(5)
Anonymous

Surely the dispensation is only for the loyal toast at the Inn? (And I think it was Charles II.)

Someone once told me that at Gray’s the tradition is to toast with a can of Special Brew. But that might just have been a spiteful dig at the members of that fine post-war social housing scheme.

(3)(0)
Not Amused

Barristers make up rubbish all the time. It’s a combination of:

1) self obsessed ego maniacs desperate for attention;
2) impressionable young people desperate to impress said egoists; and,
3) the fact the Criminal Bar in particular is seldom sober.

(5)(2)
Anonymous

I recall, many, many moons ago, when a mini-pupil, I was introduced to the Chambers’ junior tenant during tea-time. Being at the time a serving Naval Officer, I unconsciously and immediately offered my hand in greeting only to be rebuffed with the never forgotten words, “barristers don’t do that sort of thing”.
Many years of quick-fire responses to Jack Tar, prompted, “I am not a barrister and that was very rude”, which came out of my mouth before I could stop it. Needless to say, I didn’t apply to that set for pupillage. I have never forgotten how humiliated and annoyed I was by the boy (for he can’t have been more than 23). Not a good advert for the Bar…

(7)(0)
Anonymous

Well quite. If they take on that sort of tosser chances are anything less wouldn’t fit.

(1)(0)
Rapscallion

Hand shaking is a vector of infection. I avoid it unless I am wearing gloves.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

I was in the toilets at court and thought there was somebody wrestling a hog in trap 1. After much trumping, grunting and rustling, the chain went and my barrister walked out and without spotting me, he exited without washing his hands. I do not shake hands with barristers as they are a filthy disease carrying breed, a bit like sewer rats.

(2)(0)
Choccy Splendid

It’s true. The thought of indirectly gaining germs from the counsel’s clerk’s rectum is not a nice one.

No hand shakes for me.

(1)(0)
Roger That

I will now do my best not to shake hands with barristers having heard about the chap wrestling a hog in Trap One. These online conversations are generally rubbish but occasionally they illuminate.

(0)(0)

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