Horatio: The case of the teddy bear, the mobile phone and client relationship

What happened when barrister Christopher Ferguson sent a message to the wrong person by mistake.

Mobile phones are ubiquitous, if not always a blessing. Like most people, I have come to rely on mine, as professional needs are very different from when I was called to the Bar in May 1979.

I recently headed south to represent a parent in a stressful children case (aren’t they all?) that required an element of sensitivity and emotional support for my direct public access client. I was due to be away nearly the whole week, so my very considerate wife took it upon herself to secrete a small teddy bear in my suitcase for moral support. His name was Horatio and I discovered him on opening the case (where he subsequently spent the week) in my hotel.

During the case I kept in constant contact with the client, both by text and e-mail. He was even kind enough to give me a lift to court each day. It also seemed appropriate for Horatio to maintain contact with home in North Yorkshire by the occasional text message, which he dutifully sent. As the case progressed the prospects of success deteriorated. One morning midweek, Horatio sent home the following message:

“Good morning. Back in the suitcase and having to share it with laundry now. At least it is in a carrier bag. Have tried to help, but as anticipated, case not going too well. He is not looking forward to today but by this evening the worst should be over. Love to all, Horatio x.”

I hit the send button, then realised I had not sent this to my wife, but had effectively replied to a recent message from my client.  A few moments later there came back a reply to my text: “I am out front when you are ready, parked in the usual place...”   

Well we struggled on, albeit unsuccessfully. I, of course, apologised to my client for involving him in telephone correspondence with a bear. To begin with I was uncertain how it may have affected our rapport, or such credibility as I may have had. Yet, the following day, as our case lay in tatters, I received a text message from the client saying: “I am outside, ready to pick you up. By the way – how is Horatio?”   

When I think of the things that Horatio could so easily have said in that message, or the reaction that my client could well have had, I have to say that this was surely a bullet dodged. I am now more cautious with phone messages and avoid sharing my IT equipment with small furry animals.

There is, however, another important point that emerges from this tale and that is how “direct access” barristers engage with their clients. Different methods work for different barristers and clients. Personally, I place a high value on developing a rapport with a client, so that I may become better able to understand their problems, strengths and weaknesses. This must never be confused with becoming personally involved in a case. Surely, one of the things that a client is paying for and entitled to expect is a dispassionate and professional appraisal of their case. This, however, should not preclude an element of empathy.

It is one of the reasons that when preparing a case I generally agree to have a conference, or indeed more than one, without seeking extra payment for it. The client need not watch the clock, fearing the meter ticking over, wondering if his/her adviser is seeking to extract more fees.

Thus, I feel, one can develop trust, but maintain detachment and sometimes help a client to reveal useful information that they might not otherwise have realised could be relevant. On occasions this may take more time than is available, so a sense of proportion is clearly needed.


Christopher Ferguson

Christopher Ferguson - Family Law Barrister