“There is something perverse about the fact that one of the poorest paid sections of the legal profession has the most expensive uniform”
So for most of our readers, the lawyer’s wig is an everyday, familiar item. Possibly one of those irritating things you might have left at home when you’re running ten minutes late for a court appearance. For the general public however, the perruque is a bit of a mystery. Why on earth do lawyers wear wigs? (answer: they’ve been wearing them since the 17th century purely due to fashion: the reign of Charles II made wigs essential wear for polite society). What are they made of? (horsehair). How much do they cost?
William Ballantine Vanity Fair, Credit: Wikimedia Commons licence
Ah. Well, this is interesting. According to a trainee barrister source of mine, there are only about three major suppliers of wigs: Ede and Ravenscourt, Chancery Wigs and Stanley Ley.
For a barrister’s wig (the wigs for judges are about triple the cost), check out the following prices:
Ede and Ravenscourt: £560
Stanley Ley: £425
Chancery Wigs: £329
That’s an average of £438. Added to that, our trainee reminds us, is the cost of a gown (about £150), endless shirts (about £30 each), as well as all the different types of collars (roughly £15 each).
If we take that figure and put it in the context of student debt (let’s say 20k) and then consider how much a legal aid trainee is expected to make after tax and expenses (approx. 12,000 a year) – well, that is quite a sum.
“When you’ve been called to the Bar, you’ve basically got to have an extra grand to get the uniform. It’s insane, especially for legal aid lawyers.”
He says that there is actually a lot of politics when it comes to choosing your wig:
“Ede and Ravenscourt wigs look the best, but they’re really expensive. Chancery Wigs are the cheapest but they’re actually made in Australia. This is a problem because there are lots of people in the legal profession who will look down on your wig if you’ve got it ordered and shipped over from abroad. It’s a total snobbery thing.”
Chambers won’t have a stock of wigs in the back, says our trainee.
“It’s designed to be yours: it moulds to your head shape over the years, it’s yours to have and there is something special in that. But it is insanely expensive, it doesn’t really make sense.
“There is also prejudice in that some people should wear 3 piece suits, which just adds to the cost.
“I’ve only worn my wig once in the crown court. You don’t really need them in your early days but you have to buy them. In magistrates court I just wear suits.
“There is something perverse about the fact that one of the poorest paid sections of the legal profession has the most expensive uniform.
“There are lots of people who think it’s terribly important to have wigs. It’s about having a uniform for the court: court is a form of theatre, you don’t want it to be personal. You’re a person playing a role in a theatre rather than doing something to a defendant personally. There’s also the suggestion that it makes you less identifiable outside the court – you’re much more likely to have a client smack you in the face in the magistrates court [without your wig] than you are in the crown court.”
For him, the problem of affording wigs has its similarities with the issues of legal aid.
“It all goes along with this idea at the Bar that everyone is a gentleman and gentlemen don’t worry about money because gentlemen have other incomes and so no real gentleman would be particularly concerned about spending a thousand pounds on a wig before their first month’s wage. I think that’s the problem with all of it. The way that barristers bill their clients, with legal aid stuff it can take up to three or four months to get paid, that’s quite regular, and again it’s the same thing, people don’t kick up a fuss because “gentlemen” don’t have to worry about money. People are starting to complain more about not getting paid properly, but essentially this all stems from that kind of culture.
“I’ve not yet been paid for anything I’ve done and I did my first bit of paid work at the beginning of April.”
But isn’t the cost of buying the uniform justified by the fact that it’s one of those once in a lifetime (or career) investments? I ask.
Yes and no, says our trainee.
“Many trainee lawyers won’t go into crown court that often so you feel like you are spending a huge amount of money on something quite disproportionate. But then again, it’s seen as a really important part of the justice system – I think it’s silly but for many people it’s really a mark of the system and seen as special. We don’t christen them though, like everyone thinks.”
What do you mean, “christen them”? I ask.
“Well, sexually. People say that lawyers christen their wigs when they buy them for the first time. But I don’t think it’s true.”
Going back to the notion of investment and how much he’s had to cough up for the wig, I ask him if he puts it on a stand in his bedroom at night to make sure nothing will happen to it.
“No, I keep mine in a tupperware box. But a lot of people will keep theirs in an expensive tin with their initials on.”
The biggest problem with the wigs – as well as the expensive legal books that you need – is theft in the courts, he tells me.
THEFT in the courts? You must be kidding, I say. Theft among lawyers?
“Yes, it’s a huge problem. You spend all this money on the wig and the books and when it gets stolen, obviously you have to buy it all again. My book costs about 200 quid. The crown court one is 400-500 quid. You have to replace it each year for the new edition.
“It’s not that people are too poor to buy their own, but rather that people are broke and would rather nick it than spend the money.”
Interesting food for thought – what do you think?