Some of you may recall a piece I wrote for Counsel about an incident of bullying I experienced from a senior barrister when I was newly qualified (‘Robing room bullying’, Counsel, November 2020). The response to the article was incredible. From judges to pupils to non-lawyers, from around the world, I received messages from people describing their own bad experiences and their long-lasting impact. 

Recently I re-visited the subject of bullying for my blog, This time it was bullying from the bench. Now, I don’t want readers to think that I see myself as some sort of victim in the profession. Far from it – I’ve had a charmed career. Most of the opponents and judges I come across are extremely professional and pleasant. Nevertheless, a bad experience stays with you and I’m in a position to speak about mine through my blog and publications such as this.

So, I wrote a tale of two judges. I compared my experiences before a judge who chose to be petty and belittling and made me angry and a judge who was demanding but not rude and who ultimately brought out the best in me as an advocate. I give a flavour in the box (below), but the full blog is here.

A tale of two judges
She entered the courtroom – all elegant suit, perfect hair and smiles. She cut an impressive figure on the bench. It was my first appearance before her. I had heard tales of how difficult she could be but as she sat down and cast a benevolent eye over the front row, I thought perhaps she was just misunderstood.
I certainly thought I misunderstood when she suddenly and sharply demanded to know where the case summary was. I had sent it in two days before. It was the first page in the bundle we all had. I directed her to it. She didn’t look for it, just continued to stare at me. 
‘Where’s the chronology?’ It sounded like an accusation. Again, I directed her to the comprehensive social work chronology in the bundle.
‘I want counsel’s chronology,’ she said petulantly. ‘And I want ALL the law set out in the case summary.’ She turned her hard gaze from me as if my mere existence pained her eyes.
She was abrupt, too, with the other female counsel, demanding ‘proper’ position statements, implying that the perfectly adequate ones they had already filed were somehow improper. By obvious contrast, she fawned over the one male counsel in the group. 
I spent that evening rewriting a case ‘summary’. I also wasted time drawing up an unnecessary chronology only slightly different from the one that already existed. I quoted the law, starting with absolute basics, for good measure going back to legal authorities from the 1800s for what was a fairly run-of-the-mill family law care case. 
I emailed the documents in, late at night. The other parties sent in short position statements which were basically the same as their original ones.
Next morning, Her Honour ignored me and thanked, instead, one of the other counsel for the ‘detailed case summary and chronology’… she looked straight at me, as if challenging me to correct her. 
I was taken aback but decided not to rise to the bait. Even the other counsel looked down at their papers. You could almost see the second-hand embarrassment. Had I been less experienced, I might have felt crushed and intimidated. Instead, I decided on a different tack. I smiled at Her Honour, an enigmatic smile that would have done Mona Lisa proud. It contained a hint of disdain, and a degree of ‘I see you’, but was also sufficiently anodyne that I could not possibly be called out on it. 
It works every time – it’s like staring someone out. The aggressor always folds first. Try it.
Of course, we all want to appear before a judge who is both good at their job and courteous. That doesn’t always happen. But it’s the way in which they are difficult that makes the difference. 
When I was a new and inexperienced barrister, I regularly appeared before a judge who terrified even experienced barristers. He demanded the very best. He had, apparently, been a superb advocate himself, and had little patience for those who bumbled their way through pointless cross-examination and weak submissions.
While I dreaded appearing in front of him then, I now look back on him fondly. He took me to task and challenged me, but never made me feel small, never made it personal, and never belittled me. He simply asked pointed questions about the case to which I should have known the answers. 
I look back on those frightening experiences and realise that this judge helped me up my game. Whether he intended to do that because he saw some potential in me or just wanted to give me a hard time until I improved, it worked. I came to know my own ability and what I could do when I really focused and worked hard on a case.
Here, I set out some general tips I’ve picked up along the way:

Is it bullying?

If the behaviour of a judge makes you feel intimidated and belittled, and you dread going into court, then this is a form of bullying. Acknowledge this and acknowledge that it’s unacceptable behaviour. Of course, the judge is in a more powerful position than you. Many advocates are reluctant to make any formal complaint because they may feel too embarrassed about their own reaction to the treatment or simply too frightened to take on someone in such a position.

There is a difference between a judge who, under tremendous pressure of work, snaps occasionally and a judge who makes a habit of picking on an advocate or regularly goes through a routine of rude behaviour. I’ve experienced the antics of a judge who will not begin a case without causing a scene about some minor issue for at least 15 to 20 minutes. It’s almost a ritual in that judge’s court. One barrister told me she has asked her clerk not to book her for any case listed before this particular judge. She said she doesn’t see why she should have to deal with whatever issues the judge has. However, not everyone can turn down work –especially when you’re very junior. So, acknowledge the poor behaviour and then tell someone, perhaps your head of chambers or someone sufficiently senior who can do something about it. They might choose to write to the judge on your behalf, or they might raise it at a meeting with a Circuit Leader who can deal with it as an issue for the profession.

The toxic combination

Recognise that power and bullying is a toxic combination. Regular exposure to it can be debilitating. It can cause anxiety, panic attacks and a fear of going into court that can grow over time and lead to a general depression and dislike of your job. In reality, what appears as hatred of the job is actually just a dislike of the bullying environment to which you’re subjected. Don’t underestimate the effect on you. It can make your working week a misery. It can also ruin your weekend because you worry about the impending resumption of the working week. Mondays are hard enough without that added burden.

Body language

Use your body language. The smile I use (see box, above) is a barrier. Bullying is about control; feeding off the victim’s vulnerability and uncertainty. Bullies can smell fear. So, in a courtroom focus on your case, look at your papers with exaggerated concentration and, as you would with a dangerous animal, avoid eye contact. 

Your tone

Keep your tone neutral and controlled. Be business-like. The message you give a needlessly rude judge is that you are there to do a job, not respond to their tantrum. Even if it’s tempting to say something rude back or display your anger it’s best not to. Save your ire for the advocates’ room when you can share your experience with sympathetic colleagues. Some lawyers have suggested that a clever retort might be worth trying. Others suggest saying with exaggerated concern, ‘Your honour appears to be unwell, is there anything I can do?’ If you’re senior and feel able to get away with that, go for it. If you’re new it’s a lot more difficult. 

Take note

If the behaviour is particularly unbearable, take a careful note of what was said and done, ask around to see if others have experienced the same, then make a formal complaint. 

Speaking out

If you are senior and see a junior being bullied, you may want to say something to the judge. Or certainly offer support later. 

Put it in writing

Writing to a judge after the hearing may be a way to deal with it; if you feel comfortable doing this. The tone of your email or letter should not be accusatory. It’s better to reflect how the behaviour made you feel. You may want to start it with something like: ‘I’m sure you did not mean to… however…’

Don’t absorb blame

Don’t take the blame for the experience, even subtly. Even if you feel that your work on a case was not up to par, there is no excuse for public humiliation, particularly when you have a client sitting behind you. Remember, the person with the problem, be it personal or professional, is the bully, not you.

The support you deserve

As ever, with difficult situations that affect your emotional and mental wellbeing, talk about it to colleagues, friends or a professional. Always get the emotional support you deserve. 

Sources of support include:; www.samaritans.orgTalk to spot – the online tool for the Bar to report inappropriate behaviour confidentially.