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

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By Alex Aldridge on

It can make social interactions rather awkward


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.