Book review: The Savage Poodle – Tales from legal practice, by Richard Barr

Richard Barr wrote a regular column for the  Solicitors Journal for many years. Now the best of his musings on life as a solicitor in a country firm have now been collected into a book, mysteriously titled The Savage Poodle. Review by Paul Magrath.

According to his publishers, Richard Barr is a clinical negligence lawyer with more than 45 years’ experience in practice. Previously a partner at Dawbarn Barr & Knowles, Hodge Jones & Allen and Alexander Harris, he is now a consultant at Scott-Moncrieff & Associates. He has been involved in a number of high profile cases including claims arising from the Gulf War, MMR vaccinations and the agricultural use of organophosphates.

For some 25 years he has also been a regular columnist on the Solicitors Journal, which had a strong reputation for legal and professional commentary and features dating back to 1857, and would have marked its 160th anniversary in some triumph this year if it had not been suddenly and sadly closed down. (See A sad farewell to Solicitors’ Journal.) It may be in the hope of shoring up its reputation or of salvaging some of its no doubt valuable assets that the publishers, Wilmington Legal, part of the Ark Group, have decided to put out this slim but densely packed collection of past columns by one of the Journal’s longest serving contributors. Or maybe they had planned to do so this year anyway. Either way, we are the richer for having this more permanent record of Barr’s thoughtful meditations on his life in a solicitors office.

Typical of Barr’s approach is the piece somewhere in the middle of this volume, dating from 2005, entitled “Still Waters Paddle Deep”. Beginning with a conversational discussion of the reasons for having bought his two big dogs an inflatable paddling pool (stagnant old pond, health hazard, need for temporary aquatic relief pending construction of proper new pond), he goes on to examine the various health and safety warnings printed in different languages on the side. The relative complexity and detail of these warnings, ranging from the loud but relaxed Australian version to the near-hysterical detailed small print of the American, with the UK being somewhere in between, leads the author to reflect on the different levels of litigiousness of the different countries. He then pivots to a US neurosurgeon whose book Barr recalls discussing the weighing of risks when deciding whether to operate now, later or never on a particular patient, the upshot of which is the wrong (fatal) choice motivated almost entirely by the fear of litigation. But for that fear, a better clinical choice would have been made. And so to the point of the piece:

“Short of a fully fledged no fault compensation scheme, which is never going to happen, there will always be those who sue and those who are sued. But rights can be preserved on both sides of the litigation fence even if we are sensitive to our opponents’ feelings. You cannot sue and be friendly, but you can acknowledge that most of the people who become caught up in the litigation machine are ordinary human beings doing their best in a difficult world. Some would say that the only exceptions are the lawyers – and their dogs.”

Barr’s own dogs, a Newfoundland and a Labrador, don’t sound in least litigious. Even so, he ends up suggesting they should sign disclaimers before using his new paddling pool, just in case. The savage poodle of the title belongs to a different story, involving a simple “dog bites man” personal injury claim to which Barr returns, apparently with relief, after a four-month leave of absence during which he ponders the tyranny of email and over-zealous office management.

The pieces appear to be arranged chronologically from 1994, when a production company takes over his firm’s offices to use as a film set for an adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit, to 2012, when Barr muses on how much it would cost to deliver letters if the post office didn’t do it for you – which begins to make him sound closer to the legal world of Dickens than that of the emails he disdains in the title story. His old-fashionedness is a virtue of sorts, as is the low-key way he develops his stories, and is something many readers may cherish, as much out of nostalgia as for the contrast it offers to the time-starved over-managed world of contemporary legal practice.

Richard Barr, The Savage Poodle: Tales from Legal Practice (Arc Group / Solicitors Journal £12.99)

Also available from Wildy & Sons bookshop.

You can download sample chapters from the publishers’ website

Paul MagrathPaul is Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.
Paul Magrath

Paul is Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.

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